Even revolutionary football geniuses, this one the mastermind of Barcelona’s “team of the century”, have glass jaws.
Pep Guardiola, banished to the stands during Manchester City’s vain attempt to recover their first-leg Champions League deficit against Liverpool, has suffered a week in footballing Hades.
If Anfield’s first leg was a disaster, Tuesday at the Etihad saw a manager considered the world’s best suffering the same agonies his dugout peers must bear. The Champions League, a trophy that has given him sorrow since last winning it in 2011, continues to make Guardiola mortal.
Slumped at the end of a row in the director’s box after losing hipster cool with the Spanish referee’s officiating, he had betrayed himself as little more than Catalonia’s answer to Neil Warnock, someone for whom setbacks bring out the windmilling rebukes and aggression against perceived injustices.
“Both games, the teams are so good and these decisions make the difference,” he said. “But in the right moment we missed the right decisions.”
Swap the accented English for a Yorkshire, Lancastrian or West Country burr and Guardiola would have been talking finest EFL manager, a vernacular where all setbacks can be attributed to a referee.
It is certainly not the talk expected of a philosopher poet who lunches and pontificates with the likes of chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and Ferran Adria, the culinary mastermind behind El Bulli, the Catalan restaurant once regarded as the world’s finest.
Ok, Leroy Sane’s disallowed goal, which would have been City’s second, was not offside, but what purpose did it serve to engage an obviously fastidious referee? In that moment, with Guardiola’s control surrendered, Manchester City blew themselves out of the Champions League and a season in which the club will have claimed two trophies in the League Cup and the soon-to-be collected Premier League enters its last knockings tinged with disappointment.
Between that 5-1 aggregate scoreline lay the vale of tears that an expected title coronation in the Manchester derby became.
At 2-0 up at half-time, Saturday was going to be one of the greatest nights in the club’s history but once Paul Pogba had inspired a 3-2 Manchester United comeback, it was an occasion of sincere embarrassment. The blue confetti and fireworks were kept in the can for another two weeks at the earliest while City’s players and their wives had to tell their children that they would not, after all, be getting to show off their new football kits in the centre of the field with Daddy.
Are City the best team in England? Undoubtedly so, despite Jurgen Klopp’s status as the manager who most exploits Guardiola’s weaknesses and United’s turning off the mains midway through a title party.
But then again, they ought to be, considering the resources on offer and spent by the club’s owners from lavish spending that includes adding £130m-worth of full-backs last summer (even if one of them is Danilo) to the club’s successful long-range seduction of Guardiola, four years in the making, landing in 2016 the manager every club in the game craved.
At which point does Sheikh Mansour begin to think the Manchester City masterplan is never going to lift the Champions League trophy?
The City Football Group, with six clubs across the globe, seeks to give the Gulf state of Abu Dhabi a visible presence, but that, ultimately, can only be fully realised by winning the world’s foremost club competition.
On September 1, it will be ten years since City fans wore Arab headdresses to celebrate their club becoming the richest in world football, but a return of just a single Champions League semi-final in that decade is a dreadful disappointment considering investment levels that run into billions.
The three Premier League titles that the club will have collected by the summer is similarly below-par considering that the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have each suffered severe wobbles during that decade.
Guardiola was the dream ticket to power City to the next level, something he has achieved through the team’s breeze towards the title, but the patterns of his Bayern reign are being replicated. City have run away from the rest in England, only to be found wanting by the extra intensity required across two-legged Champions League knock-out ties.
A visible tiredness has set in by spring, highly possibly as a result of the intensity the Catalan asks of players even for facing lesser Premier League lights.
Kevin de Bruyne, for example, while not exactly playing badly, has retreated in influence such that Mo Salah, Tuesday’s killer, has surpassed him as this season’s best player in English football.
City’s is not a manager to put his head round the door and say “Lads, it’s Tottenham” instead of a team talk in the relaxed fashion of Sir Alex Ferguson. Instead, the psychological pressure is maintained at all times on his players. It has proved effective in terms of winning titles, but exhausting and, eventually in the Champions League, counterproductive.
But Guardiola is not a manager capable of turning the taps on or off, his entire football persona is about pressure. The last week has seen him and City blow a gasket.