It’s been a decade since Pep Guardiola won the Champions League.
If this seems absurdly long for someone who is widely recognized as the greatest active football manager, consider that Guardiola has not even reached the final in these 10 years, despite leading the best teams in Spain, Germany and England. during this period.
So can his latest iteration at Manchester City – a relentless, rocking record-breaking team that closes another English Premier League title – end the wait?
Guardiola, at least in public, tries not to get involved in the hype.
“It’s nothing special, nothing different,” Guardiola told the Champions League on Tuesday, a day before City play Borussia Monchengladbach in the first leg of the round of 16.
Repeatedly pressed for the importance of the Champions League – surely, for example, it is bigger than the English League Cup? Guardiola used the same old mantra, in a clear attempt to take the pressure off both him and City.
“We will play the match tomorrow, as we played the last matches, and I would say the whole season in all competitions,” he said. “Nothing special. It’s a football game. Ninety minutes.
“We will make a good game, we will try to continue and achieve a good result, and then we will think about West Ham (in the Premier League), Saturday, 12:30. This is the goal. The same process is mental. “
It is understandable why Guardiola is trying to keep expectations, given the pain that City has experienced trying to become European champions for the first time in years at the expense of Abu Dhabi. Since the Spaniard arrived in 2016, City have been eliminated by Monaco in the last 16, Liverpool, then Tottenham in the quarter-finals and then – perhaps most disappointingly – Lyon in a one-time quarter-final last season.
Guardiola is accused of rethinking his knockout tactics, such as when he changed formations to match Lyon’s in August – only to undermine his own team’s strengths because he was occupied by a more limited opponent, at least on paper.
On Tuesday, Guardiola hinted that such thinking may be a thing of the past.
“We will prepare the game as a normal game,” he said. “We will treat Mönchengladbach as a team we have made against Arsenal, as against Liverpool, as Everton, as against Tottenham (in the last Premier League games).
“We’re not going to change anything at all – small details to adapt a little bit of what they are, but it’s no different from what we do most of the time in the Premier League.”
Giving extra hope that this could finally be Guardiola’s season – and in fact City’s – is a defense that was the narrowest of all the teams in the group stage, conceding just one goal in six games and proving almost impenetrable. at home.
In a 13-game Premier League win that gave the team a 10-point lead with 13 games left, City scored just three goals. These are just seven goals conceded in 25 games in all competitions since City were last defeated on November 21 – at Tottenham 2-0.
The mid-season signing of the central defender of Portugal Ruben Diaz from Benfica was huge, his impact is compared to that of Virgil van Dyck in Liverpool. Like Van Dyck, Diaz – although only 23 – is a natural leader and a calming influence for others.
Central defender John Stones’ husband has apparently taken advantage of Diaz’s presence and is in the best shape of his career. Attacking full back Joao Cancello also offers a new dimension to the team with his position and creativity.
“This is a full credit to our manager,” City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan said on Tuesday. “He set the right things at the right time. He saw that something was wrong, something was missing and corrected a few things about how we were defending ourselves and how we were playing with the ball.
“That’s why he is the best manager in the world. This is amazing. I never thought, frankly, in December about where we are now in February. “
Guardiola’s disappointing recent Champions League record stretches ahead of his time at City, when he was eliminated in the semi-finals in all three seasons during which he coached Bayern Munich (2014-16).
Both of his Champions League titles came with Barcelona in 2009 and ’11.