It is back on with the black polo neck and out into the cruel seas of football management for Pep Guardiola today. Premier League title races offer no room for wallowing in self-pity and Manchester City have Newcastle United to contend with today. Another game so soon after the trauma of the Bernabeu is an intrusion into the wake that followed Wednesday night but buoyed by Liverpool’s stutter against Spurs it is also a chance to change the depressing mood music for Guardiola. Falling short with City in the Champions League may be an annual occurrence but few of his near-misses will have stung so much.
There has been much hindsight wisdom brought to bear following the semi-final exit to Real Madrid, most of it spurious. This latest setback cannot be blamed on Guardiola over-thinking his selections or tweaking his formations. Nor on his substitutions on the night. He was on the money with his decisions.
Sometimes in sport, stuff just happens and what transpired in those astonishing last few minutes of normal time was a hellish reworking of Alex Ferguson’s ‘football, bloody hell’ moment. It was Guardiola’s grim fate to be on the receiving end.
Even Carlo Ancelotti, who has masterminded Real Madrid’s pogo-stick passage to Paris through the most turbulent of tournaments, could not quite seem to believe it. Maybe it was the African curse after all.
The scapegoat searchlight since has picked out Kevin De Bruyne’s no-show, Jack Grealish’s finishing and the City defence’s collective descent into panicked chaos after Real’s first goal – all of which have some merit. But if there was one overarching reason City missed out on a place in the final it was the chances they missed in a first leg at The Etihad, which could have ended 8-3. Not even Madrid could have hauled themselves, Tyson Fury-style, off that canvas.
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Had City managed to sign Harry Kane last summer the picture might have looked very different but that die was long-since cast.
Six years into his City project, Guardiola still has to hark back to his Barcelona days to recall the feel of the Champions League trophy. This must be hugely frustrating for Sheikh Mansour who, despite the Kane miss, has backed the Catalan to the tune of £1bn in the transfer market since his arrival, with Europe the ultimate prize. Other owners would have been less forgiving at Guardiola repeatedly missing out on it.
After Roman Abramovich – whatever happened to him? – moved into Stamford Bridge in 2003, Chelsea went on a similar new-money journey of close-but-no-cigar campaigns in Europe, with four semi-final appearances and a penalty shoot-out final loss to Manchester United before they struck gold under Roberto Di Matteo in 2012.
The managerial pass-the-parcel Abramovich favoured meant the Italian caretaker was the seventh manager in this period. He was gone six months later and a lengthy succession of managers followed before Thomas Tuchel brought the Blues the trophy again last term.
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The Etihad ejector seat takes much more to activate but amongst the panicked blowback from Madrid, the City grandees will have heard the knee-jerk theorising. That somehow Guardiola, who created the system, is its blockage; that his presence is somehow a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom in Europe. On no account must they allow their thinking to be influenced by this errant nonsense.
If they need a lesson from history, take the case of Ottmar Hitzfeld. Ferguson’s opposite number, when he coined that unforgettable phrase after Manchester United had scored twice late on to beat Bayern Munich in the 1999 final, could have paid the price for the late capitulation.
Instead the Munich hierarchy stayed loyal and two seasons later Hitzfeld’s side lifted the Champions League trophy in the San Siro.
If City win three and draw one of their four remaining league games, the Premier League title will be guaranteed. Guardiola will have delivered four in five seasons. He has built a team that plays some of the most advanced, aesthetically-pleasing football ever seen on these shores.
City should move heaven and earth to persuade him to extend his contract when it expires at the end of next season – and not just for their own constituency. The prospect of a couple of bonus years of Guardiola versus Jurgen Klopp is enticing for English football as a whole.
If Erling Haaland does, as expected, arrive in the summer, Guardiola will have a new toy to amuse himself with and, quite possibly, the missing piece of the City jigsaw. Throw in the continuing evolution of Phil Foden and he will have two of the most exciting young players in Europe to shape. These are tempting reasons to stay on, never mind finally scratching the Champions League itch.
If Guardiola stays the course with City and City do likewise with Guardiola, they will reach the end of the rainbow eventually.