Winning with City is Guardiola’s Greatest Achievement

Credit: Manchester City

What worlds does Pep Guardiola have left to conquer? If his Manchester City side beat Internazionale of Milan in the Champions League final in Istanbul next Saturday, as they are expected to, Guardiola will join an elite group of managers who have won club football’s most prestigious trophy at least three times. Carlo Ancelotti, whose Real Madrid side were swatted aside in the semifinal, leads the way with four wins, while Zinedine Zidane and Bob Paisley each won it three times.

For now, Guardiola is part of a group of 17 that have won it twice. If he was to make it three with City, 12 years after his second success with Barcelona, it would represent one of the longest gaps between successes. Only Jupp Heynckes (winner in 1998 with Real, and in 2013 with Bayern Munich) and Enrst Happel (1970 with Feyenoord and 1983 with Hamburg) have had to wait longer to lay hands on the trophy again.

It also goes without saying that Guardiola’s achievement would easily overshadow those of the other three he would join at the top of the list. Ancelotti won his titles with AC Milan (twice) and Real (two times). Both were part of the European football aristocracy long before he took charge. There was no new frontier to cross.

Paisley did that with Liverpool, leading them to the first three of their six titles. But he would have been the first to admit that he built on the foundations that had been assiduously laid by the great Bill Shankly. From a distinctive pass-and-move style of play to the legendary Boot Room, where tactics and transfers were discussed at length, things were in place for Paisley to take the club to the next level.

Zidane won three straight Champions Leagues with Real, where he had once excelled as a player. In his case, there was no discernable philosophy or unique playing style, but the players he picked and the way he set them up invariably worked in the big games. And in an era of superstar players who frequently clash with their managers, Zidane commanded enough respect from his playing days to keep any sort of mutiny at bay.

City, as of now, cannot even be mentioned in the same breath as those three clubs. They have only reached one Champions League final before this season, and have no great history of midweek European nights to fall back on. In the early days of Guardiola’s reign, he was dismayed by the relative lack of atmosphere at the Etihad Stadium on Champions League nights. On more than one occasion, he hinted that the team needed an Anfield-like cauldron to intimidate the opposition.

In the second leg of the semifinal against Real, he certainly got that. City fans, who had been in Manchester United’s shadow for nearly four decades, had shed their ambivalence towards the trophy that their neighbours had won thrice, and the wall of noise that helped crush Real was a testament to how far the City project has come under Guardiola.

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Winning the treble with City would far outstrip anything he has done before. At both Barcelona and Bayern, Guardiola was like an inferno that blew in, scorched the Earth, and then burnt itself out. He lasted four seasons in Barcelona, the club of his heart, and three in Bavaria, where his Champions League quest never got past the last-four stage.

At that point in time, there was a real danger of Guardiola being viewed as another Bela Guttmann or Jose Mourinho. Guttmann, who survived German concentration camps, had a coaching career that took in an astonishing 25 jobs. But the three years he spent with Benfica of Lisbon – who he won back-to-back European Cups with in 1961 and ’62 – represented his longest stint with a team.

Mourinho took has been a wanderer, with the three years and three months he spent at Chelsea in his first spell there the longest he has stayed in any job. When Guardiola left Bayern, there were those that suspected that City would be another short-term project. He seemed incapable of doing a Shankly or Alex Ferguson and staying on to build a dynasty.

Now, after five league titles, and six other major trophies, that perception has changed. Ahead of the Champions League final against Inter, you only need to look at how cleverly he has rebuilt to understand how invested he is in the job. In 2017-18, when City romped to the first title under his watch with a record 100 points, they played Liverpool in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. They lost 3-0 at Anfield, and 2-1 at the Etihad.

A glance through the teamsheet from the second leg is instructive. Of those who played that night in 2018, only Kyle Walker, Kevin de Bruyne, and Bernardo Silva started the FA Cup final against Manchester United on Saturday. İlkay Gündoğan and Phil Foden were on the bench that night, while Ederson played no part in the FA Cup final. Aymeric Laporte came on as a late substitute.

Seven of the starting XI in the FA Cup final were not part of that 2018 matchday squad, though John Stones was at the club. Stalwarts like David Silva, Vincent Kompany, Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero have left or retired, and Guardiola and City have managed to replace them with equally capable and influential players.

That is the hallmark of a great manager. Whether it was Sir Matt Busby, Shankly, or Ferguson, they each managed to break up legendary teams and create another. Busby’s hand was forced by the Munich disaster, while both Shankly and Ferguson acted after seeing dips in performance. Guardiola and City have left one great side behind. Now, with recruits like Erling Haaland, Jack Grealish, and Julian Alvarez having bedded in, another fantastic side is taking shape. With Guardiola going nowhere, the rest of English, and European, football should be afraid. Very afraid.

Also Read: Guardiola and Ancelotti Both Know What this City Win Means

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