This Saturday, with Manchester City preparing to host rivals Man United at the Etihad in the late afternoon kick-off, offers a neat closure of a narrative that was set in motion when the top two teams in the Premier League last met. That being: it’s City’s league to lose, as it was their 2-1 victory over United at Old Trafford on December 10th that sent them eight points clear at the top, convincing most that Guardiola and the Citizens would be claiming their third title in six years.
Defeat over Jose Mourinho’s side this weekend will confirm that ubiquitously agreed-upon notion, and bring to a definite close what had been inevitable since the end of last year.
It’s been a very good campaign for Man City and Guardiola. They are still in contention to break the 100-point mark, and suffering just one loss in thirty-one league games shows how much the Catalonian manager has improved this side since last season; one that showed flashes of Pep’s ability as a coach, but which ultimately contained one underwhelming result too many.
But with seven games still to play, and with six of those likely to be played with the comfort of knowing the title is theirs, complacency could set in.
As City demonstrated against Shahktar Donetsk in the Champions League group stage, this side are capable of slacking off when their main objective has been accomplished.
Sometimes the praise for City this season has teetered slightly on the precipice of drooly and at times has felt a little over-blown, especially when talk of this side being the greatest in Premier League history comes about. But there’s no doubting this team’s quality, and the world class talent of some of its players. If it weren’t for Mohammad Salah’s phenomenal goal-scoring campaign, Kevin de Bruyne would be the easy pick for player of the season.
But when we look away from their sparkling domestic performances, and focus attention on another competition which City have also been held up as credible favourites, the Champions League, we tend to forget that Guardiola, a man who many would find hard to argue as being the best football manager on the planet, has not had the best of times in Europe’s premier club competition.
Wednesday night’s hammering by Liverpool at a booming Anfield was a hard and fast reminder of the Spaniard’s recent blotched history with the Champions League. At first glance, it may not appear so terrible.
In fact, many other managers might peruse his record in the competition in recent years – four semi-finals in five competitive years – and scoff at the notion that his Champions League pedigree needs any second thought.
Yet, like many things, it’s all about the angle at which it is viewed.
Stumbling at the final hurdle is what Guardiola’s teams in the competition have been far too prone in doing, and in a couple of instances, the word stumble could be replaced with outright implosion.
In April 2014, a 1-0 first-leg loss to Real Madrid at the Bernabau with Bayern Munich in the semi-final certainly did not confirm the German team’s exit. But in the return leg at the Allianz Arena, the tie was over by half time, as Real Madrid blew Guardiola’s side away thanks to a quick-fire Sergio Ramos double and a cool finish by Cristiano Ronaldo after a blistering counter-attack. Ronaldo added a fourth late in the second period, slotting an under-the-wall free kick past a rooted Manuel Neuer.
The following year, at the same stage in the competition, Guardiola had been matched up against his old side Barcelona. What happened in the first leg at the Camp Nou was a reverse of what happened the previous campaign.
In this tie, the winner was determined before the second leg was played. Guardiola set out his team to man-mark the Barcelona players. This tactic failed dramatically, with chance after chance coming for Barcelona, with Neuer being the only one keeping the team’s head above the water.
The breakthrough came eventually, when Lionel Messi fired in from the edge of the area. There followed a magisterial second for the Argentine, along with a late third added by Neymar.
On Wednesday night, Salah’s early conversion was the beginning of another European implosion for Guardiola. Players which have shone all season tried their best, with De Bruyne and Leroy Sane struggling to put any coherent or threatening attacks together, and Gabriel Jesus, in for the injured Sergio Aguero, was totally anonymous throughout.
Raheem Sterling was introduced midway through the second half, and although there was a visible desire to affect the game and get one back on his old team, the Englishman failed to get City back on track.
There are still another 90 minutes to be played, and by the time the second leg comes around next Tuesday, City may well be champions of England. Spirits will be high, and scoring heavily at home is not something they are incapable of doing.
However, Liverpool may well be starting to shake off their frailties in defence, thanks largely to the purchase of Virgil Van Dijk and the vast improvement of German keeper Loris Karius.
Should Jurgen Klopp’s team of heavy metal footballers play the right tune and see themselves into the draw for the last four, it will leave Guardiola ruing – despite a double-trophy haul in his second season in England – another failed Champions League campaign.