It’s hard to believe Pep Guardiola hasn’t won the Champions League for nine years. It’s the most difficult challenge in club football – no manager has ever lifted more than three European Cups – but the long wait will still rankle for the greatest coach of his generation.
The Guardiola triumphs of 2009 and 2011 were near the beginning of his managerial career when he built an iconic Barcelona team that included Lionel Messi and the midfield pair Xavi and Andres Iniesta whose chemistry made it impossible to mention one without the other.
Since then, he has tried and failed with Bayern Munich and Manchester City, not going beyond the semi-final. Despite the City fans disliking UEFA, the club hierarchy crave the Champions League. It took Roman Abramovich nine years to reach the summit after he bought Chelsea but City’s Abu Dhabi owners are still waiting 12 years on.
Pep Guardiola’s nine-year Champions League drought will rankle for the acclaimed Spaniard
His Manchester City side were stunned by Lyon in a 3-1 defeat in last year’s quarter-final stage
The club’s owners crave Europe’s greatest prize but are still waiting after 12 years at the Etihad
As the club return to European competition on Wednesday night against Porto, only two months after their dismal 3-1 defeat against Lyon in the last season’s one-off quarter-final, Guardiola is taking the failure personally.
‘I felt so responsible,’ he admits. ‘It was a tough moment. I was not able to drive the club and players. We have to accept the reality, we were not good enough.
‘We didn’t play badly, but we made mistakes and can’t do that in this competition. Every player and manager has to dream but we have to accept (defeat) with humility.’
Guardiola’s status is assured. Nobody can match the 100 points City reached in the 2018 Premier League nor the domestic clean sweep of Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup the following season. But this perfectionist will feel something is missing until he brings the Champions League to the Etihad.
Guardiola took responsibility for the Lyon defeat and admitted he could not ‘drive the players’
His desperation for the trophy is altering his thinking and has caused him to tinker in big games
The common perception is that Guardiola is too stubborn to abandon his free-flowing philosophy for the pragmatic tests of Europe.
That may have been the case during his time at Bayern Munich when he reached the semi-finals three seasons in a row before conceding five to Real Madrid, five to Barcelona and then losing to Atletico Madrid on penalties, but at City he may have suffered the opposite problem.
There seems to be a tendency to over-think matches rather than trusting his instinct.
‘That squad can win it if Pep stops thinking he is Clark Kent,’ one source told Sportsmail last season in relation to Guardiola’s frequent tactical tinkering.
He was accused of failing to change his ways at Bayern – but has the opposite problem at City
His decision to bench Raheem Sterling for Ilkay Gundogan against Liverpool in 2018 came back to haunt City as they were dumped out
In 2018, he put an in-form Raheem Sterling on the bench for the first leg of their quarter-final at Anfield, opting for the less dangerous Ilkay Gundogan on the right. Jurgen Klopp couldn’t believe his luck and Liverpool raced into a 3-0 lead in the first half. City failed to register a shot on target and Liverpool went on to win the tie.
Maybe Guardiola’s brain freeze was a hangover from his first season when City lost to Monaco on away goals after a cavalier tie ended 6-6 on aggregate.
Yet the Catalan has continued to attempt the cautious approach in the last couple of years, with little success.
In 2019, he played two holding midfielders – Gundogan and Fernandinho – at Spurs and lost that quarter-final first leg 1-0, eventually going out on away goals again.
His cautious approached continued against Spurs the next year as they lost on away goals
They were tipped to beat Lyon, a team that finished only seventh in the French League, but Guardiola was so respectful to the opposition he uncharacteristically played three central defenders while chief creator David Silva was named among the substitutes.
‘Lyon are so fast up front, incredibly fast through the channels,’ he explained afterwards. But others thought he shouldn’t have sacrificed his own team’s cutting edge to help cope with Memphis Depay, a very good player but not generally recognised as a world-beater.
It all suggests a manager so desperate to win the Champions League, it alters his usual thinking. City should qualify from this group even though Kevin De Bruyne is injured and striker Sergio Aguero has only just back from a long-term knee injury. But later in the competition it will be interesting to see if he removes the handbrake.
The margins are very close in big European games. Against Spurs, Guardiola may have been hailed as a tactical genius had Sergio Aguero not been called for a marginal offside in the dying moments of their tie. Instead, the VAR check changed City’s status from semi-finalists to the exit door.
City should have enough to get through the group stage even though Sergio Aguero (L) has just returned from injury, while Kevin de Bruyne has picked up a knock
City can finally realise their potential in this competition if Pep lets them play with freedom
Empty stadiums could do City a favour in this competition. Their players won’t have to hear fans booing the Champions League anthem, a result of several disputes between the club and UEFA, from lenient punishments to fans who racially abused Yaya Toure to the long-drawn out financial fair play saga.
The best response from City will be to win the Champions League for the first time in their history. Indeed, the argument for putting them alongside Manchester United, Liverpool, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona into the proposed 18-team European Super League weakens if they don’t.
Guardiola was once accused of being inflexible. But in Europe, that has served him better than tinkering with tactics. Maybe he’ll allow City to play with the freedom his best teams always have.