To suggest Pep Guardiola has failed is ridiculous – but Champions League losses grate


The Manchester City manager has delivered two Premier League titles and four domestic cups but the biggest prize looks as far away as ever.

When Pep Guardiola came to Wembley for the 2011 Champions League final against Manchester United, he brought Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi and a fear factor. Only one man did not feel it – the United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

According to Wayne Rooney, who was in the United team that night, Ferguson told his players they would go for the jugular. “I remember him saying: ‘We’re Man United and we’re going to attack – it’s in the culture of this football club,’” Rooney wrote in the Sunday Times two weeks ago.

Ferguson’s players were unconvinced. The respect that they felt for Barcelona seemed to go way beyond wariness. “I think all the players knew, deep down, it was the wrong approach,” Rooney said. United went for it and they were taken apart. Towards the end, Rooney is said to have begged Xavi to stop. The way the Barcelona midfielder, Sergio Busquets, tells it, Rooney said to Xavi: “That’s enough, you’ve won. You can stop playing the ball around now.”

When Guardiola got his hands on the trophy, it was a second triumph in the competition at the end of his third season in management. The surgical unpicking of United showed what was possible when everything clicked for his team and Guardiola looked set to win many more Champions Leagues. His supremacy was total.

At that point, if anybody had said that he would not reach another final in any of his next eight attempts, they would have been advised to shut the curtains and have a lie down. And yet that is the reality for Guardiola, as he digests the fallout from Saturday night in Lisbon, when his Manchester City team found a way to lose to Lyon in the quarter-final.

Guardiola had arrived in Manchester on a run of four semi-final losses – one with Barcelona and then, after his sabbatical in 2012-13, three with Bayern Munich. At least he has buried the semi-final curse. At City, he has not lost one because he has yet to reach one. His Champions League record with the club now shows one last-16 exit and three in the quarter-finals. Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham, Lyon. The names of his conquerors are etched into his history.There has been a readiness in some quarters to suppose that Guardiola’s failure to deliver the most glittering prize at City means he has failed at the club. It is ridiculous and not only as it presupposes that two Premier League titles and four domestic cups count for nothing.

The wider point is that delivering at a club involves creating a style and identity behind which the fans can rally, in which they can believe or, put simply, that they can enjoy. Week in, week out, Guardiola’s team are fun to watch and, however much this might be taken for granted, it can never be forgotten.

But the gap on Guardiola’s City CV does grate, not least because everybody knows the Champions League was the trophy the club most wanted this season. Kyle Walker said so before the Lyon tie and then there is the small matter of what the club have spent on their project. They have done so to win the elite-level trophies. There is no getting away from this. Big spends equal greater jeopardy and pressure.

Every exit represents a harder turn of the wheel and the impact on the club’s psyche should not be underestimated, particularly as Guardiola never seems to be able to see defeats as anything other than the fine details conspiring against him.

Guardiola has his way of playing and, when it almost always leads to the creation of plenty of chances – invariably more than the opposition – he will reason that he cannot do much more. He cannot put the ball in the net himself. How can he legislate for Raheem Sterling’s open‑goal miss against Lyon as City trailed 2-1? There have been numerous matches over this past season when his team have dominated only to fail to score enough and lose. For Guardiola, it only adds to the bemusement, the sense that greater cosmic forces are at work. Surely things will turn around in the end?

As Guardiola has endured his fall from grace in the Champions League, he has dug ever deeper and searched ever harder for tactical solutions. When the plan has come together, as it did in both legs of the last-16 win over Real Madrid, the satisfaction is immense. But when he shakes it up and it does not work, as happened against Lyon, there is no hiding place and the image of Guardiola as a tortured genius only hardens.

When the team sheets dropped on Saturday night and City’s 11 starters were considered, including three screening midfielders, it was possible to configure them in any number of formations. But perhaps the most unlikely was the 3-4-2-1 that Guardiola did go for. With him, it is usually wise to expect the unexpected but the impression that he was being too clever, not for the first time, was not a good one. When he switched to 4-2-3-1 on 55 minutes, with Kevin De Bruyne as the No 10, City were more threatening.

Guardiola was asked afterwards whether it had felt like the same old script. “Now, yes,” he replied. But then came the fighting talk. “Life is how you stand up again and next season we’re going to try again,” he said. “We will recover, we will restart.”

Guardiola has never started a fifth season as the manager of the same club and he will have to reinvigorate his squad. David Silva and Leroy Sané are gone while Fernandinho, 35, and Sergio Agüero, 32, have entered the final year of their contracts.

City will be tracked by one particular truth – teams pay hard for mistakes at Champions League level. It is the ultimate test of mentality and, for Guardiola, it appears to be getting more onerous.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here