At the turn of the previous decade Pep Guardiola could do no wrong.
In 2009 and 2011 his Barcelona teams ripped Europe to pieces, led by a legendary midfield and a player - Lionel Messi - who will likely go down as the greatest to ever play football. Heck if it wasn’t for Jose Mourinho going full 'Lord of the Dark Arts' he would have won a hat-trick.
However, since 2011 he hasn’t been back to the final. He has reached the semi-finals at best - losing to the eventual winner three times in that period - but more recently the exits have represented disappointing defeats. The demolition by Liverpool and late collapse against Tottenham Hotspur have been bookended at City by getting knocked out by two Ligue 1 sides, Monaco and Lyon. This is meant as no disrespect to Ligue 1, but there are only two or three teams in the world who City should accept losing to given their spending power.
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This season pundits and fans alike have been quick to label City as the standout favourites for this year’s competition - to finally win the trophy that will complete Guardiola's City resume. There’s a couple of reasons for this, firstly they’re 14 points clear in the Premier League and closing in on a third title under Guardiola. The other factor is that there is no obvious challenger. Bayern Munich, the reigning champions, are the best bet but they are just two points ahead of RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga and their campaign has been stuttering at best. Timing plays a big part of it too. Formerly bit-part players like Ilkay Gundogan, Gabriel Jesus and Riyad Mahrez are hitting top gear and John Stones is once more England’s best central defender. The loss in the derby to Manchester United was unfortunate, but it doesn’t take away from their astonishing winning run.
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However, they’ve already lost more games than they did in their 100-point season in 2017-18. Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero are back yes, but they are both another year older - the Belgian is 29, while City's talismanic striker is 32 - and David Silva is no longer there. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that perhaps 2017-18 was their best side and perhaps then their best chance.
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The way we view any potential success of City in Europe this season is a good insight into how we treat the Champions League. For the best teams it’s held up as the pinnacle, the sign of true greatness. Yet for teams that we deem unworthy - see Chelsea in 2012 - there are always asterisks. Will City get one if they were to see off a below-par Real Madrid and Liverpool on their way to the final?
The way the Champions League has become revered is of itself odd. Once you’re past the groups it’s seven wins and you’re there. In fact, it actually can be a combination of wins, draw and losses if you play your cards right. It’s not as if Tottenham Hotspur were the second best team in Europe when they were beaten by Liverpool in 2019.
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Does Guardiola need a Champions League title to secure his legacy? Not in this writer’s opinion. He showed that his style of football was capable of winning in England and the adjustments he has made this season are one of a true tactical master.
But as we sit four months removed from Guardiola signing a new contract that will keep him in Manchester until 2023, there is every chance he adds a European trophy to his CV. In two more seasons he might add another league title, you’d think that would be the bare minimum. His side will go down as one of the best in Premier League history and really should go down as a great of the European modern era, too.
So what do they need to do to put their status beyond doubt? And to silence every critic?
Well firstly, and most importantly, they have to cut out the mental errors that have plagued them over the last few years. They’ve come close before but seem to often end up shooting themselves in the foot. The calming presences of Ruben Dias and Rodri will hopefully go a long way to alleviate that but it can be a factor in the final third as well.
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Sometimes when City are trailing in games or failing to break down teams they can become frustrated, but have to keep their cool and trust the plan. Having more options with more of their attackers fit and on form should help with that.
The final thing is to be wary of the counter-attack. It played a part in the Manchester derby and some of their European defeats during this Guardiola era. It’s one of the best ways to beat a Guardiola side, let them over-commit and then catch them cold. This ties in to the other two points: City must remain patient and trust their process.
Do that and this could very well be their year.
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