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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 18 June 2024

Champions League: Smart moves help Pep Guardiola scale peak with Manchester City

From tightening up defence to hiring the best talents, it’s a well-scripted success story

Angshuman Roy Calcutta Published 12.06.23, 04:07 AM
Pep Guardiola.

Pep Guardiola. File photo

The winner’s medal hanging down the neck, Pep Guardiola was emotional as he spoke to the commentators of BT Sport.

“This trophy is so difficult to win,” he said minutes after Manchester City won their maiden Champions League trophy beating Inter Milan in the final in Istanbul on Saturday night.

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Guardiola knows how difficult it is to be the kings of Europe. After waiting for 12 years — the last time he mastered Europe was with Barcelona in 2011 — the Spaniard can finally again feel how it is to be on top. There were heartbreaks with Bayern Munich, and disappointments with his present club — the loss to Chelsea in the final two years back or the meltdown against Real Madrid last year were gut-wrenching.

Now all those have been put to bed. City emulated their crosstown rivals Manchester United by achieving the treble — English Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League, club football’s biggest trophy. Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United had done that in 1999.

The once “noisy neighbours” are now on par with the red side of Manchester. Guardiola, now 52, is also the first coach to win a hat-trick of crowns twice. He had done that in his first season at Barcelona in 2008-09 with a young Lionel Messi in rampaging form.

Abu Dhabi-based Sheikh Mansour has longed for the Champions League since buying City in 2008. The league titles or FA Cups failed to satiate the hunger. Europe was what they wanted.

Sceptics say City’s success is all about petrodollars. That’s true to some extent. Ever since Guardiola took over the reins in 2016, City have spent a mindblowing €1.24 billion in the transfer market. The money flow for Guardiola just refuses to ebb.

So you can afford to use a Jack Grealish — signed for £100 million in 2021 — sporadically in his first season or you can beat a host of old-school clubs like Real Madrid to get the signature of Erling Haaland. But then if you think Guardiola’s City is all about splurging then think of Ferran Torres. A smart move by City sent an inept Torres to the debt-ridden Barcelona for a cool £48 million in December 2021. Or spending just around £14 million on a then relatively unknown Julian Alvarez.

After the debacles of the past in Europe, Guardiola this season has been smart. He realised that City needed to be more solid in defence and used Rodri and John Stones in front of the three-man defence post-World Cup.

Rodri, whose 68th-minute strike made the difference against Inter on Saturday, made 52 starts this season. Stones missed some matches due to injury but when fit gave much-needed confidence to the defence. That they let in just five goals in the Champions League proved how good City were in defence.

“We were much more compact at the back. That’s a big change from previous seasons,” Pep acknowledged after the final. No discounting Haaland’s 52 goals in his debut season in England.

Still, Inter could have taken the game to extra time. The ball floated slowly across the City goalmouth in the 89th minute, towards the head of towering striker Romelu Lukaku, who headed almost straight at goalkeeper Ederson, whose left leg pushed it to safety.

Lukaku, who has a reputation of bungling in front of the goals, could not believe his luck, the Inter bench was stunned and Guardiola was relieved.

“Inter were good. Be patient, I said at half time. You have to be lucky. This competition is like a spin of the coin. It was written in the stars. It belongs to us,” Pep said.

On Saturday morning Guardiola received a good luck message from Ferguson. “I am so happy to be sat alongside Sir Alex,” he said referring to the treble treat.

Three down, three more to go. Triumphs in Community Shield, European Super Cup and World Club Cup over the next six months can see his City doing a “hexa”. He did that too with Barcelona in 2009 in one calendar year. “I don’t have any energy to think about next season, it’s impossible. We need a break, it’s too long.”

True. Guardiola and his brave-hearts deserve a rest.

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