Eight years ago, Rafa Benitez wrote a book called Champions League Dreams. It recreated the secrets, the success and the sadness behind his “specialist subject” (Clive Tyldesley ©). Two finals against AC Milan and three huge semi-finals versus Chelsea were testament to the talents of the Spaniard in a golden four-year period for Liverpool. He made the Reds the number-one ranked club in Europe just a few weeks before their 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid at Anfield in 2009.
That was as good as it got at the continental summit for Benitez.
That same year Pep Guardiola won his first Champions League as manager with a 21-year-old Lionel Messi in the ranks. He repeated the trick in 2011. Manchester United were the victims both times. Since then, the competition has been particularly unkind to the Spaniard. His former “specialist subject” has been a stick with which to beat him as the failures to replicate total football in Europe have stalled at Munich and Manchester despite the domestic triumphs.
Thankfully, for the wider football world, Guardiola insists that he won’t kill himself if City don’t win UEFA’s crown jewel this August. However, in the last 12 months, he has also said that his team isn’t ready to win the competition. Or that he might be sacked if he can’t claim Europe’s golden ticket. The Champions League has become a mossy millstone around his neck. He “dreams” of winning it but one suspects the purity of the pursuit has been distorted through the prism of his previous seven attempts. The more Guardiola tries to take the pressure off his team, the more opposite the effect.
His Catalan reign ended in agonising defeat against Chelsea in 2012 when Barca had numerous chances to progress against Roberto Di Matteo’s team. In fact, since spurning a 2-1 aggregate lead in the Nou Camp against ten men, the trophy has essentially spat in Guardiola’s face in terms of ill-fortune, selection nit-picking, strategic errors and downright failure.
Even at the best of times, the 49-year-old looks like a man whose wrestle for perfection and the “right” plan can only end in personal agony. Does his manic obsession with winning mean he can’t enjoy the sheer elation of victory? Roy Keane suffered from something similar.
Guardiola chews over everything so much that picking the perfect route can sometimes corrupt the destination. In the 2014 semi-final, his Bayern side was destroyed in the Allianz Arena 4-0 by eventual winners Real Madrid. According to his former assistant Domenec Torrent, there was discontent in the camp.
“Pep’s idea would have been a more wait-and-see tactic, but essential players wanted to act more urgently, more stormily,” Torrent told Kicker. “There were errors in defensive behaviour when conceding goals”.
The following year, Munich leaked three late goals at Barcelona to crash out of contention at the same stage with the experiment of a back three being abandoned early in the match.
Which brings us back to Benitez: “For a coach, the trick is to keep the players relaxed yet at the same time make sure they are concentrating — don’t make silly mistakes. In any cup competition, a mistake can cost you, but in Europe this is especially true. The opposition will always have at least one player with the quality to punish you.”
How that proved costly for Guardiola from 2012 to 2019.
While Jurgen Klopp has reached three European finals since joining Liverpool in October 2015, Guardiola has not been beyond the quarter-finals of UEFA’s top-tier competition in his last three attempts. City have conceded 15 goals combined in the ties they were knocked out in. Big-game players suddenly looked unsure or less certain.
Guardiola’s near obsession with the potency of Liverpool’s front three must have surely accounted for a conservative selection of Ilkay Gundogan during the three-goal thumping at Anfield in 2018. A year later, a trip to Tottenham should not have been overly stressful, but Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane watched on as Fabian Delph and Riyad Mahrez’s selection ended in a dismal one-goal defeat. The return leg saw total disarray as Tottenham struck twice in the first 15 minutes, with even Aymeric Laporte visibly shrinking in stature.
Pep Guardiola thinks too much. Doesn’t make him a bad person or manager. But he thinks too much.
— John Brewin (@JohnBrewin_) April 9, 2019
Then there was the epiphany of Madrid in March. It worked. Pep’s false nine plan succeeded. City embraced the occasion rather than fearing the outcome. The manager gushed: “It is amazing to be able to win here for us because we are not used to doing these things.
“We hope it will help us in the future to believe in ourselves and to be able to go to any stadium and play the way we did against Real.”
This could have been the turning point. Then COVID happened.
Can City finish the job off five months later against the fully refreshed La Liga winners? They can. Do they believe it, though? This foreshortened tournament now offers them a fantastic chance to find their strut on the big stage. It is an unbelievable chance to do it quietly without a crowd and the external noise of negativity.
‘Thoughts are tyrants that return again and again to torment us,’ Emily Brontë wrote in Wuthering Heights. Losing football matches is not a tragedy, but it will help Guardiola’s overactive mind to land a third Champions League without the Barcelona branding. Sometimes, football heritage (or ‘eritage, as Jose would say) can drag a man down.
Tim Ellis – follow him on Twitter