Guardiola’s City legacy hinges on Europe as he faces old foe
Two-year ban means manager could be facing last shot
Manchester City’s assistant manager Rodolfo Borrell with Pep Guardiola ahead of the Champions League last 16 clash with Real Madrid. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Pep Guardiola has history with Real Madrid and, at times, it has been possible to detect the personal edge. As a proud son of Catalonia the Manchester City manager is a supporter of the region’s independence movement, which has put him at odds with the Castilians of Real.
As a Barcelona player and then manager Guardiola fought numerous battles with Real, and his numbers in the latter capacity have come into focus as he prepares to lead City at the Bernabéu in the Champions League last-16 first leg on Wednesday night.
In four seasons in charge at Barcelona, Guardiola played seven times in all competitions at Real’s stadium, winning five, drawing two and losing none.
It seemed as though he had a jinx over them as he marched to three La Liga titles and two more in the Champions League. Under normal circumstances, Guardiola versus Real would fill the pre-match preview.
It is also Guardiola versus the Champions League, the competition that he looked set to dominate when he won it twice in his first three seasons at Barcelona – which was, of course, his first job in management. It has not worked out that way.
When Guardiola arrived at City in 2016 he came with something of a semi-final curse. In five of his seven seasons at Barcelona and then Bayern Munich, he fell in the Champions League’s last four. His first stab at the competition with Bayern ended with a 5-0 aggregate defeat by Real, which featured his only career defeat as a manager at the Bernabéu.
At City he has not even made it that far. A part of the reason for the club’s hiring of him was to try to win Europe’s elite trophy for the first time but one last-16 exit followed by a pair of quarter-final reverses is a blot on his record.
Guardiola’s critics say his legacy at City will be tarnished if he fails to win the Champions League, which is an awfully harsh way to look at things, particularly as he eyes the Carabao Cup final against Aston Villa on Sunday. Win that and he would have carried off seven of the past eight domestic trophies, including Community Shields.
It also overlooks the beauty of the footballing culture he has instilled at City, how the club’s fans have been treated and entertained as rarely before. It is difficult to put a price on the memories Guardiola has created; how so many of his matches at City have come to resemble individual pieces of the highest theatre, taking people to different planes.
Yet Pep and the Champions League obsession has nonetheless become a thing, a talking point, a strong line of narrative. And again, under normal circumstances, it would fill the pre-match preview.
These are not normal circumstances. What happened on the Friday before last in the adjudicatory chamber of Uefa’s club financial and control body (CFCB) saw to that. City’s two-year ban from European football for deceitful submissions with regard to financial fair play has changed everything, posing questions about their titles from 2012-16 – the period under scrutiny – and, on a more micro level, squeezing the dynamics of the showpiece with Real.
The club’s appeal to the court of arbitration for sport will provide a sideshow over the coming months and it may yet delay the punishment, which is scheduled to kick in next season, or even overturn it.
But for now Guardiola must assume that this season will be his last shot at the Champions League with City for some time or possibly ever – given he will be five years in the job at the end of next season, when his contract expires. Guardiola has not previously entered a fifth season as the manager of a club, let alone a sixth or seventh.
It is no great leap to see the situation as now or never, or that a siege mentality has built at City and for Guardiola, where the CFCB has become the latest and most dastardly external enemy, following on from referees and VAR, the fixture schedulers and even the media. Guardiola does not enjoy having to give press conferences or flash interviews and, sometimes this season, he has been haughty to the point of petulant in them.
City have adopted the language of the siege – witness their incendiary statements towards the CFCB, in which they have variously derided its processes as “curtailed, hostile, prejudicial, flawed and consistently leaked”. Ferran Soriano, the chief executive, has said “this seems to be less about justice and more about politics”. Guardiola, too, despite being much more diplomatic, has got across the sense of persecution. He said last Friday that no one had helped City this season and he was reported to have told his players he would honour his contract “even if they put us in League Two”. The club have not disputed this comment.
City’s financial irregularities are not down to Guardiola, the players or, indeed, the fans, some of whom are in vociferously defiant mood. There are supporters who feel that the club might have broken the rules and they are ready to accept the consequences. It is just that these fans are mostly not on social media.
The apocalyptic scenario, which does not seem so far away, is that without Champions League income, City will be unable to service their wage bill, which is the third highest in football. If all or part of the ban sticks, players may have to be sold and Raheem Sterling was not slow to give an interview to AS last week in which he talked admiringly of Real Madrid. It recalled the one that Gareth Bale, then of Tottenham, gave to the same Spanish publication in 2011 before his team’s Champions League quarter-final first leg at the Bernabéu. Bale got his move to Real in 2013.
For now City have an enticing 90 minutes ahead of them and, in their eyes, it is them against Real and the world. Can Guardiola harness the collective sense of injustice to fire a run to success? The stakes could not be higher.