When Manchester City welcomed RB Leipzig to the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday, the 53,000 capacity stadium had more than a third of its seats empty. By contrast, the same Etihad had been fully booked two weeks before this Saturday's clash against struggling Southampton. Thus, Manchester City fans love their club, they just do not love the UEFA Champions League as much.
This is an interesting situation in the least for outsiders but a worrying one for crucial stakeholders like Pep Guardiola. The measure of success for a coach at the Etihad is not only the EPL title, as Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini will attest. Before the Catalan joined the Citizens in 2016, Manchester City had won the Premier League title and was consistently in the Top 4. Without a doubt, the tactical mastermind was brought in to win the UEFA Champions League. Four years on and after utter domination of the domestic scene, Guardiola is close but has yet to achieve the target.
However, the treble-winning coach might be facing an unlikely adversary, his own club's fans. During the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League campaign, the coach repeatedly called on his fans to 'raise the tempo' and make the Etihad a fearful place for teams to visit. During the same season, the Etihad-goers repeatedly booed the Champions League anthem at the start of games. Needless to say, the relationship between Manchester City fans and UEFA has been fractious.
A crucial reason why City fans are laidback with Europe's premier club competition is due to a perceived non-acceptance of the club amidst traditional/historical European elites. The likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United, and Juventus are considered Royalty. Even the recently underperforming Arsenal, AC Milan, and the resurgent Liverpool are all reserved a seat at the table of Europe's elite but not Manchester City. The major perception against the Etihad club is that their Oil-rich owners have 'bought' them success. It took Chelsea over 10 years, supportive fans, and 2 UEFA Champions League titles to shake off the same tag but Manchester City fans could care less.
Another flashpoint in City fans animosity towards the UEFA Champions League is the repeated fines, sanctions and occasional suspension by UEFA over Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations. In 2020, the English Champions were provisionally banned from the Champions League for 2 years for breaking FFP rules. UEFA's decision was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) but it was typical that the fans would feel targeted.
For Guardiola to win the much-coveted UEFA Champions League, he invariably needs the support of his home fans. Club sides such as Liverpool and Atletico Madrid point to a menacing home stadium atmosphere as one of the reasons for their recent success in the elite competition. It just might be the only factor stopping Pep Guardiola from delivering the Big Ears trophy to the Etihad Stadium.