Moment of Truth for Guardiola and Man City Against the Kings of Europe

In I Think, Therefore I Play, Andrea Pirlo’s superb autobiography, there is a small passage about the 2005 Champions League final, where Liverpool came from 3-0 down at half-time to beat AC Milan on penalties. “There are always lessons to be found in the darkest moments,” writes Pirlo. “It’s a moral obligation to dig deep and find that little glimmer of hope or pearl of wisdom. You might hit upon an elegant phrase that stays with you and makes the journey that little less bitter. I’ve tried with Istanbul and haven’t managed to get beyond these words: for f***’s sake.”

In May 2022, Pep Guardiola, his Manchester City players and thousands of fans found themselves in a similar predicament. Having beaten Real Madrid 4-3 in the home leg of their Champions League semifinal, City put one foot into the final in the 73rd minute of the return with a wonder goal from Riyad Mahrez. The Santiago Bernabeu, home to by far the most successful team in the competition’s history, was stunned, and there was further disquiet in the stands in the 87th minute when Jack Grealish sprinted into the box from the left wing and let fly with a cross-shot. Somehow, Ferland Mendy hacked it away off the line, leaving Guardiola clutching his head in disbelief. Still, with City leading 5-3 on aggregate, it didn’t seem like it would be a costly miss.

But then, with 89:21 on the clock, a deft touch from Rodrygo, on as a substitute, off a volleyed assist from Karim Benzema pulled a goal back. The away fans singing Blue Moon and other tunes paused. Less than 90 seconds later, with the fourth official having signalled six minutes of time to be added on, a glancing header from Rodrygo levelled the scores.

Two minutes and 22 seconds into extra time, Ruben Dias brought Benzema down in the box. Penalty. After the inevitable protests from City and the mandatory VAR checks, Benzema stroked the ball into the corner of the net, with Ederson having dived the wrong way. The clock showed 94:05. Back in 2005, Liverpool had scored their three goals in the space of six manic minutes. Madrid needed five to shatter City’s Champions League dream for another season.

A year on, the two teams are poised at 1-1 after the first leg. But perhaps crucially, City will be playing the second in front of their fans. “We are not stupid to (not) know how important [Wednesday’s] game is,” said Guardiola on the eve of the match. “It is maybe one of the most important games since we are together here. We cannot deny that. For the competition, for the rival, for many things.”


Real are European royalty, seeking to reach the final of the premier club competition for an unprecedented 18th time. Ranged against Guardiola on the touchline is Carlo Ancelotti, who has won the Champions League four times as a coach. Guardiola is one of a clutch of greats who have managed it twice.

Sample this passage of writing. “Even in his repetitive drills he had a way of making the mundane seem important, the football variation of a masterly novelist who could take the muddle of everyday life and bring clarity and sense to it, and allow readers to see, for the first time what was in front of their eyes all along…Everything was accounted for, labeled, identified, put in order, fundamental and sound. You could tell that the coach believed in what he was doing. His tone of voice, his posture, his manner, it all made you believe.”

If you didn’t know better, you’d swear those words had been written about Guardiola, whose methods most of his players swear by. In fact, they come from When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss’s biography of Vince Lombardi, the American Football coach whose influence on his sport can still be seen more than half a century after his passing.

Guardiola’s intense, possession-based style has spawned many imitators. Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp has his adherents for his methods based on relentless pressing and an emphasis on the collective. But if you ask most football followers to explain Ancelotti’s playing philosophy, they wouldn’t know how to. It’s probably best to say that he knows how to win. His comments ahead of the second leg in Manchester on Wednesday night – “When you reach a semi-final, it’s whether you are able to show personality, character and mentality on the pitch, not only quality” – merely reinforced that. 

Over the last six seasons, Guardiola has won a staggering 26 group matches (out of 36) in the Champions League. Klopp has 25 victories over the same period. But he won the trophy in 2019, and also led Liverpool to finals in 2018 and 2022. He can also point to the fact that his teams have only ever been beaten in knockout ties by Real (2018 final, 2021 quarterfinal, 2022 final and the round of 16 this season) and Atletico Madrid’s dogs of war (2020).  

City’s catalogue of Champions League heartbreak under Guardiola includes losses to Monaco in 2017, Tottenham Hotspur in 2019 and Lyon a year later. Only in 2018 (Liverpool) and last season were they beaten by sides with far greater European pedigree. Even in the 2021 final, the only one Guardiola has reached since his Barcelona years, City were big favourites to see off Chelsea.

Despite these near-misses and slip-ups, Guardiola was insistent that this tie would not define his work as a coach. “My legacy is exceptional already,” he said, harking back to his successes with Barcelona in the 2009 and 2011 finals. “I have been here many times already.

“I said to the players live it like a huge opportunity, enjoy the moment. We are incredibly lucky to be here. It is in our hands, it depends on us, we don’t have to do something exceptional, just be ourselves and win one game to reach the final.

“We are going to give everything, do everything, I have an incredible feeling about the team. Whatever happens, thank you so much to them to bring me and the City fans to be here again.”

If City and Guardiola can clamber over this hurdle and end the long wait to win the ultimate prize, it could well be the platform for an age of dominance. There are games that define teams and eras. For City, this is one of them. Ancelotti was injured and watching from the sidelines in 1984 when Liverpool beat his beloved Roma in the European Cup final at the Stadio Olimpico. Like Bob Paisley, who managed Liverpool that evening, Ancelotti is a man of few words, with little interest in long tactical debriefs. And like Paisley, Ancelotti has unmatched game sense and the gift of imbuing his players with the belief that no cause is ever lost.

No coach in the game’s history has a record comparable to Guardiola’s. If he can get past the world’s greatest club, and the ultimate big-game coach, then all those dissenting voices, especially on social media, might finally be silenced.

Also Read: Barcelona crowned La Liga champions after Derbi Win

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