MANCHESTER, England — History is not on Pep Guardiola‘s side as he tries to lead Manchester City to back-to-back Champions League titles this season.
Real Madrid is the only club to retain the trophy in the modern era by winning it three times in a row from 2016-18.
“We’re incredibly happy to defend this crown, but this competition doesn’t allow you mistakes,” Guardiola said ahead of City’s opening Group G game against Red Star Belgrade. “The competition gives us a new challenge so (we’ll) at least try.”
The European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League in 1992 and no team had successfully defended the trophy until a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Madrid in 2017. The Spanish giant went on to complete a three-peat the following year.
Madrid won the first five editions of the trophy, from 1956-60, when the competition was in its former guise as a straight knockout tournament. The European Cup was also only open to the champions of Europe’s leagues, as well as the current holder of the trophy.
Teams would frequently win the trophy in successive seasons during that period, with Ajax and Bayern Munich each crowned champions of Europe three years in a row during the 1970s.
While the Champions League, with its massive broadcast revenue, has been cited as a reason for a widening of the gap between European soccer’s wealthiest teams and their smaller rivals, it has established itself as one of the most fiercely contested competitions in the sport.
That has been a consequence of the increased number of top teams from the biggest leagues that are permitted entry, with four from England, Spain, Italy and Germany all qualifying.
Those countries have dominated the Champions League era and between them have won all but three editions of the competition since 1993. It could be argued, however, that it is a measure of the competitiveness of European soccer’s elite club tournament that only one team has successfully defended the trophy.
“I was incredibly proud at Barcelona to win two in (three) years but we didn’t win it in a row,” Guardiola said. “If we aren’t able to win it, like the previous six seasons, then (we’ll have to) qualify for next year and try again.”
Guardiola finally lifted the trophy for a third time in June after City’s 1-0 win against Inter Milan in Istanbul. He had previously won it with Lionel Messi and Barcelona in 2009 and 2011.
It was City’s first European Cup and completed a treble of trophies last season. After June’s final, Guardiola set his team the challenge of becoming multiple winners like Europe’s greatest clubs.
Madrid has won it a record 14 times, including five of the last 10 editions.
On Monday, City’s manager reiterated the importance of repeating last season’s success.
“I’d like to say that for our club to win the Champions League is incredible,” he said. “But in perspective for the Champions League, how many teams have won the Champions League once?
“A lot have won two, three, four, five. In perspective, we did nothing special. Just one.”
City hosts Belgrade at Etihad Stadium on Tuesday.
While it is expected to win that match, the competition will be fierce again this year with Bayern Munich having signed England striker Harry Kane and Barcelona looking like a bigger threat after winning the Spanish league last season.
Madrid is regularly a challenger and has added England midfielder Jude Bellingham to its ranks.
Guardiola‘s success at City, however, has been born out of a seemingly insatiable appetite for trophies.
“The hunger is still definitely in the changing room and I hope the manager still wants to win more,” said City defender Kyle Walker. “You can see what he is like in games and training. He doesn’t settle for second and we should follow in his footsteps because he has managed some great teams that have won fantastic things. What we have done is in the past… we have won the Premier League and Champions League, but to go again is what separates the good teams from the great teams.”
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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