It seems rather ironic that a competition in which Pep Guardiola achieved fame as a football manager is now the reason he is considered a failure by some. The Catalan manager was a beast at Barcelona leading his home side to conquer Europe (twice) after building one of the best teams in world football.
Since then, he has repeatedly fallen short in the Champions League despite achieving significant domestic success. He elected to leave Bayern Munich in 2016 after three years of Bundesliga dominance. The Bavarian club has not only continued that dominance since, it has won the Champions League.
But Guardiola’s search for another European crown continues.
Heavily criticised by the media for failing on the continent, City provided the perfect opportunity to put things right. For a club that has also endured criticism over failing on the same front, success under Guardiola would be a win-win for both parties.
Arriving late to the party, a huge cash outlay has gone into the project. That's to shorten the path to the top as an outsider.
Season after season, the Catalan has been backed with the required funds to strengthen his squad. The media has brandished headlines and carried out numerous analyses of how the club is the first to assemble a billion-pounds squad. That has led to rival fans dismissing City’s domestic success as a function of money rather than sporting merit.
Yet, the spending has not reflected on the team’s performance in Europe. Ordinarily, when a team reaches the final of the Champions League, that in itself is a huge achievement as was the case with Tottenham two years ago. But it’s different at City. And that’s because of the heavy investment made into the team.
Winning the Champions League now seems a given; an expected result, not a wish. Not winning it is considered failure.
Guardiola has admitted as much, even suggesting that will define his legacy at the club more than anything else.
The final against Chelsea presented a decent opportunity to finally have the dance. But the cause of Guardiola’s long wait to roll out the drums came to the fore once again.
The 50-year-old gaffer has been frequently criticised for overthinking things. He may as well plead guilty this time around. It’s often said in football circles that you don’t change a winning team.
City made a brilliant run to the final overcoming Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain in the quarter-finals and semis respectively. In the four games Guardiola used an identical lineup. Kevin De Bruyne played as the false nine in a fluid front line that saw Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva changing positions mid-game.
Rodri provided cover for the defence while Fernandinho came in against PSG and delivered a masterclass of a performance to help secure passage to the final. Having a whole three weeks before the final to think about his lineup proved Guardiola’s and indeed City’s undoing.
The manager decided to bench both of his holding midfielders. He also started Raheem Sterling who has been out of form for most of the campaign. Shocking, right? Well that’s what geniuses do. It turned out to be an expensive gamble that failed spectacularly. The fans’ celebratory mood also turned into agony.
But that’s not the worst piece of news. It’s that Guardiola’s decisions in the last decade have become second nature. It’s now a character trait. Pep has to be Pep even if he is his own worst enemy. He has to fix it even if it isn’t broken. And then that ends up breaking things in the Champions League.
Be that as it may, he still has two years remaining on his contract at the Etihad Stadium. The overriding goal will remain to make things right. For sure the tools are there to work with. He will also be backed to strengthen again if he requests for more ammunition.
And if there is any manager out there that can win this war, it’s Guardiola. But he must get out of his own way by keeping things simple. Only then can City win the competition with him in charge.