Even a domestic treble won’t save the Guardiola experiment from failure

After yet another flop in the Champions League, John Brewin feels Man City’s owners must be wondering if their manager will ever deliver European honours.


That Pep Guardiola is aware of his legacy is obvious. Here is a man who has allowed himself to be the subject of two authorised biographies, took part in “Take The Ball, Pass The Ball”, the documentary story of his Barcelona years, and allowed himself to be cast as the leading man of the Amazon series “All Or Nothing”, depicting his second, record-breaking season at Manchester.

The subtext is not subtle; this is a grandmaster at work, and the behold is privileged to be allowed through the door into his genius.

While Guardiola was on a sabbatical in New York, he surrounded himself with the intelligentsia of other walks of life, including former chess world champion Garry Kasparov and Ferran Adria, the head chef of elBulli, the world’s most celebrated haute cuisine restaurant. These are men who made indelible marks on their fields, true pioneers.

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Central to the Guardiola conceit is that idea of innovation, of dedication, of a scientific and moral approach that other coaches can only aspire to. And for his four seasons at Barcelona, he will always be regarded as one of the truest of greats. His team – at least for the first three seasons – played football from another planet and made him the most in-demand coach in the game.

“No one has given us a hiding like that,” said Sir Alex Ferguson after the 2011 Champions League final. Manchester United had been driven to blessed distraction and all their manager could do was hold his hands up.

But if Ferguson had never faced anyone on that level, then Guardiola himself has never since hit such extra-terrestrial heights.

Wednesday night’s collapse to the sidelines and despairing shedding of his high-fashion ‘mandigan’ as VAR sank City’s Champions League season and handed the tie to Tottenham represented an eighth year without the European crown.

A trophy he collected twice from his first three attempts has become an albatross, a mortal wound to a carefully curated legacy.

Had Guardiola not signed an extension until 2021, Wednesday would have been the end of the affair; his original contract had been three years, a period of time he had previously said was the optimum length of tenure.

There is little doubt that City’s Abu Dhabi billions were placed in his care to deliver the grandest prize in club football. Guardiola was supposed to be as safe a guarantee as there could be of claiming it.

Instead, he enters territory he had been unwilling to breach before, having suffered in his fourth season at Barca, and departed Bayern Munich after three seasons of Bundesliga dominance could not be converted into a Champions League win; he had inherited a team that were the competitions’ holders in 2013.

He finds himself still locked alongside Jose Mourinho on two, while the likes of Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane, with three each, have both overtaken him. Neither man has anything like the philosophical pretensions of Guardiola, but both found a route to success that included careful man-management via careful horse whispering, and the harnessing of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Guardiola’s repeated slips in semi-finals with Bayern Munich, and worse with City, not getting past the quarter-finals, begin to point to his Barcelona team being hugely reliant on its own megastar in Lionel Messi. “In Barcelona I was a lucky guy,” he said a few weeks ago when offered the opinion that Messi was the key to that Barcelona team.

“I’m sorry, I was lucky.” It was a response delivered with the prickles familiar to those who regularly attend his news conferences.

Beyond signing Messi, something Guardiola says he has never attempted, Manchester City’s owners have done all they could to lay everything in place for their footballing crown prince. And in turn he has delivered the type of success they envisaged; no team has ever been quite so dominant as City were last season in the Premier League.

His team are still within reach of a historic treble, and without Liverpool’s presence would be within an FA Cup final versus huge underdogs Watford of collecting it. And yet there is still a tinge of disappointment over Guardiola’s reign at City.

Aside from last season, where Mourinho’s Manchester United waved the white flag as early as October and settled for second, they have not been bulletproof, with the first season beginning with a long unbeaten run that collapsed once Antonio Conte’s Chelsea picked up pace and surged past City.

The club may have been built to his specifications, with a Catalan cabal running the back offices, but the question of whether City was the correct choice might also be asked. Guardiola, whose ambitions to win the Champions League, to bury the ghost of Messi, to frank his genius, is at a club whose fans have not yet bought into the competition.

Behind that lies supporters’ anger at UEFA’s punishment of their club over Financial Fair Play breaches, a grudge that goes back to City fans not being allowed to attend a match at CSKA Moscow that was played behind closed doors when many had booked travel, and the idea that the competition is of the elite they do not feel part of.

Even though their team is these days far superior, it is a competition that belongs to United and their ilk.

This is something that has not gone unnoticed to Guardiola. “I want to see that they want to get to the semi-finals, not just the players, the fans too,” he said ahead of the Tottenham second leg. “At this stage, without supporters, we cannot go through. I’m really curious how our fans will be.”

On Wednesday, City tried to furnish their manager with that support, holding a pre-match rally on the Etihad concourse that included former greats like Shaun Wright-Phillips, Benjani and Andy Dibble, plus rugby union’s Will Greenwood. Whether it worked is difficult to discern since the match turned into a classic – with four goals in its opening 20 minutes – that would have had any audience rapt.

But within that, the game had already gone beyond Guardiola’s control, just as it did in exiting the Champions League to Monaco and Liverpool. His carefully laid stratagems and the intensity he willingly revealed in his fly-on-the-wall appearances seem to freeze his teams in the matches he wants to win most of all.

That comes by contrast to the sterile domination with which City have put the hammer down on Liverpool in the title race.

Perhaps the Champions League has come to mean too much to him, muddles his thinking such that he loses the tight grip he otherwise has on his teams.

Even if City do win a domestic treble it would not seem outlandish to suggest Tottenham’s VAR-delivered win will still hang over a man with such a sense of his own legacy.

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