Football managers can be as obsessed as any political leader with the need for being “on message” – as Manchester City defender Oleksandr Zinchenko discovered this week.
The Ukrainian spoke openly and positively before Tuesday’s Champions League win over Borussia Monchengladbach about the chance of the team winning an unprecedented quadruple of titles this season.
His manager, Pep Guardiola, was less than impressed with the player veering from the party line, rebuking “Mr Zinchenko” and declaring that “four titles is a utopia”.
Guardiola’s stance is fairly typical of managers who worry that by talking up the end goals, players will lose the focus needed to accumulate the wins that bring the success.
But while such a mentality is understandable and no doubt based on good psychology, by no objective standard can the idea of City winning all four titles this season be considered utopian.
With eight games remaining, City lead the Premier League by 14 points and it is a matter of when, not if, they complete their third title in four seasons.
City are in the final of the League Cup and are favourites to beat Tottenham Hotspur in the final on April 25.
They are expected to beat Everton in the FA Cup quarter-final on Saturday and while they will be wary of Manchester United, the only team to beat them in any competition since a loss to Spurs in November, Guardiola’s team are still favourites.
That leaves the Champions League, where Guardiola’s caution is most justified as City have fallen in the quarter-finals for the last three seasons.
They will find out who their last eight and possible semi-final opponents are in Friday’s draw.
Last year, in the single leg format in Lisbon, City contrived to lose to unfancied Lyon.
The previous year they lost to Tottenham over two legs and in 2018 were well beaten by Liverpool.
In all of those games, City had spells where their defending let them down – but this season’s team look far more solid.
With Ruben Dias having transformed the troublesome centre of City’s backline, they have not conceded a goal in the Champions League since October’s opening group game against Porto.
Striker Sergio Aguero’s long-term injuries resulted in City playing regularly without a traditional centre-forward and as a result they have mastered a system where midfielders Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne take up the central positions at key moments.
Phil Foden’s emergence as a regular feature in the side has injected some additional pace into the team.
Yet, as Guardiola never tires of pointing out, in the Champions League, the margins of error are much tighter than in domestic competition and they will need to maintain their current level of form if they are to turn ‘utopia’ into reality.