Manchester City’s biggest result of the season will be revealed on Monday, with the club’s Champions League place – and reputation – at risk.
At 09:30 BST, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) will announce its verdict from the three-day appeal hearing that took place in June into the “serious breaches” of Uefa’s financial regulations City were found guilty of in February.
The best-case scenario for City is that they will be cleared of all charges and their two-year European ban will be overturned. And on Friday, manager Pep Guardiola said he was “so confident” of a successful appeal.
But in the worst-case scenario, Cas will have found City deliberately cheated the system and the suspension will stand, shredding the club’s reputation and keeping them out of European competition until 2022-23.
There are plenty of shades of grey in between and the key points will be contained within the explanation for the verdict that will come with Cas’ decision.
BBC Sport assesses the situation.
A brief recap
On 14 February, the independent Adjudicatory Chamber of Uefa’s Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) said City had broken the rules by “overstating its sponsorship revenue in its accounts and in the break-even information submitted to Uefa between 2012 and 2016”.
It added that City had “failed to cooperate in the investigation”.
City were banned from European football for two years from next season and were fined 30m euros (£26.9m).
City said they had not received a fair hearing and lodged an appeal to Cas.
What could happen?
There are a number of different outcomes, including a reduced, partially suspended punishment.
The Premier League will also be interested in the outcome as their own FFP rules are similar – but not exactly the same – as Uefa’s.
The club were insistent that the evidence on which the case was based – thousands of leaked emails – represented an “organised attempt to smear the club” and reacted to their two-year ban by saying the process that led to it was “flawed” and “prejudicial”. So any stain on their reputation would be an embarrassment.
That is why the details of the report will be crucial.
If it is determined they were dishonest and effectively ‘self-sponsored’ by inflating deals beyond their true value as a cover for the additional investment owner Sheikh Mansour was ploughing into the club above FFP’s allowable limits, every success City have had since 2008 – and any they achieve in the future – could come with a “but”.
On the other hand, should City receive some sort of punishment but it is stated there was no intent to cheat and their breaches were purely technical, the club will feel justified in adopting the stance they have taken and move on with confidence, even if the arguments around them will continue to rage.
While it will be too simplistic to judge City purely on severity of the sporting sanction laid down, the secondary issue, around a squad containing some of the biggest names in the game – managed by the most decorated coach – is virtually all about Europe.
What is the potential fall-out?
On the pitch:
Guardiola has already said he will stay for the remainder of his contract, which expires in 2021. However, the chances of persuading him to sign an extension to that deal if there was no prospect of winning the Champions League would appear slim.
Similarly, while Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero and the rest of City’s decorated team would be targets for the biggest clubs in the game if City opted to sell, they are also under contract.
Over the past four years, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have all failed to qualify for the Champions League. Tottenham will miss out next season.
Should City’s ban be reduced to a single season – a season that will be squeezed by the fallout from Covid-19 and finishing with both the European Championship and Copa America in June and July – they could put forward a pretty persuasive argument for why all their biggest names should stay where they are.
Doing that for two seasons – when many are in the prime of their careers – will be a tougher sell.
Off the pitch:
It is the same on the commercial side. One year out of the Champions League can be accommodated within the financial planning fairly comfortably. Two brings more problems and greater risk of costs needing to be cut.
This case is not just about City though. Uefa’s Financial Fair Play ideal is also at stake.
While to some it purely exists to protect the elite by preventing ambitious owners spending huge amounts to break into that group, to others it represents a vital component of keeping finances in check and reducing clubs being placed at risk due to profligate spending.
Insiders told the BBC many months ago that if the verdict does not stand, it is impossible to see how FFP in its present form can survive. That remains the case.
“I am going to sleep, because I can’t do anything. I wish I could,” said Guardiola.
“We wait on Monday and then clarify everything for the next month. And that’s all. I have friends above me with higher positions and when we can do it, we can do it.”
The scenario that sees ninth place qualify for Europe…
And, it may be a side issue at present, but there is a reason for all Premier League clubs down to Crystal Palace to take notice. For, if City are banned from Europe next season, there is a scenario where the ninth-placed team gets a Europa League spot.
With no City involvement, the remaining clubs in the top five would qualify for the Champions League. Wolves would join them if they won the Europa League. That would open up the next three league places for the Europa League – unless Arsenal won the FA Cup while finishing lower than eighth.