Man City vs Real Madrid: Pep Guardiola’s fourth season treads line between failure and ultimate success

By the time that Pep Guardiola takes his seat at the Etihad on Friday night, 164 days will have passed since Manchester City’s win at the Bernabeu. For someone accused of ‘over-thinking’ Champions League knockout ties, that is a long time to think about a Champions League knockout tie.

That ‘over-thinking’ theory is just that – a theory, rather than any concrete explanation as to why Guardiola has not won the Champions League since 2011 – but it is fair to say that this second leg against Real Madrid has dominated his thoughts ever since the first, and that this competition is never too far from his mind.

For an indication of just how much is riding on City’s last game at the Etihad in this longest of seasons, go back to the very first. A year ago, before City’s Champions League campaign had begun, the shadow cast by last season’s quarter-final elimination at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur still hung over Guardiola.

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City’s first home game in their defence of the Premier League title began against the same opponents. Mauricio Pochettino’s side took a 2-2 draw despite being out-shot by City’s 30 attempts on goal to their three. Worse still, just as Raheem Sterling had seen a stoppage-time winner disallowed by a VAR call in April, so did Gabriel Jesus four months later.

Guardiola is said to have been an irritable and irascible presence around the City Football Academy in the days afterwards. The two title-winning campaigns – totalling 198 points – may as well have been a distant memory. With Liverpool emboldened by their Champions League success, he felt City had to be even better and prove everything all over again. Instead, they had already lost ground on Liverpool, ground that they would never make up.

It was not so much the performance of his players that frustrated Guardiola, even if the same poor finishing would cost them every now and again throughout the season. It was more the circumstances – denied by the new handball rule that would have disallowed Fernando Llorente’s decisive goal in April had it been in place – and the eerie similarity to that quarter-final second leg.

The new season had started with a repeat of the last’s lowest point, almost like a premonition that this would be a difficult year.

Nearly a full 12 months later, whether the 2019/20 campaign is remembered as a difficult one or not depends on events in Manchester tonight and in Lisbon over the next two weeks. It could be a lot worse. Last month’s favourable verdict at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) was arguably the greatest result of City’s post-2008 era, but it is one that Guardiola could not – and would not – accept credit for.

In his realm, on the pitch, a third EFL Cup win in three seasons is no compensation for finishing 18 points behind Liverpool. His mantra after the restart was that all City’s Premier League dead rubbers would be preparation for the FA Cup semi-final and the second leg against Madrid. Much thought went into the meeting with Arsenal at Wembley last month, only for Mikel Arteta to expose the same issues that he could not help Guardiola solve while working as his assistant during the first half of the season.

Guardiola is hardly under pressure from above – the opposite in fact, with City keen to extend his contract before it expires next June – but in his press conference the day after the Cas ruling was announced, he conceded that Khaldoon al-Mubarak is “not happy” with the failed defence of the Premier League title and the distance to Liverpool. “We discuss internally to try and do better next season, to convince them,” Guardiola said.

Externally, meanwhile, Guardiola knows that he is judged by his success in the Champions League. Every so often he will claim he has not lived up to expectations at this rarefied level, albeit with his tongue firmly in his cheek. “I’m a failure in this competition,” he declared before the Tottenham second leg last year. “If my teams don’t win the Champions League, we fail all the time.”

The accusation clearly hurts him. He has lifted the European Cup as many times as Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arrigo Sacchi. Then again, he had matched all of those managerial greats by the end of his fourth year in senior management. The most influential coach in world football is closing in on a decade without success in its most prestigious competition.

That will have preyed on Guardiola’s mind in the 164 days since Madrid, in the year-plus since Llorente’s goal, and during a season where City have moved backwards rather than forwards for the first time during his spell in charge. But that could all change in the next fortnight. His fourth – and perhaps penultimate – year in Manchester will either be a failure or the ultimate success.

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