Guardiola chases Champions League vindication

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola addresses press on the eve of the Champions League Group C match. (AFP)
Updated 18 September 2019

Guardiola chases Champions League vindication

  • Guardiola has conquered English football spectacularly after winning the last two Premier League titles

LONDON: After a series of painful Champions League failures, Pep Guardiola is on a mission to seal his Manchester City legacy by finally getting his hands on the trophy again.

City start their latest bid to win the club’s first European Cup with a trip to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Group C opener on Wednesday.

The long flight to Ukraine will give Guardiola plenty of time to ponder his curious streak of Champions League flops in recent years.

Guardiola has conquered English football spectacularly after winning the last two Premier League titles, the first in record-breaking fashion and the second as part of an unprecedented domestic treble last season.

Yet the Champions League has proved impossible for Guardiola to master since he arrived at the Etihad Stadium.

In fact, Europe’s elite club competition has been a cruel mistress for Guardiola for most of the last decade, with a series of frustrating exits during his spells in charge of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City. Guardiola first won the Champions League as a manager in 2009 with Barcelona.

But he has failed to reach the semifinals in any of his three seasons as City boss, extending his long wait to win the tournament for the third time — his second triumph coming with Barca in 2011.

City’s best Champions League run was under Guardiola’s predecessor Manuel Pellegrini, who made the semifinals in the last season before the Spaniard took over.

And Guardiola’s inability to win the Champions League without Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi in his team is a black mark his critics use to question the 48-year-old’s right to be ranked as a managerial legend.

While that assessment is harsh on the innovative and inspirational Guardiola, his European campaigns with City have undoubtedly been painful experiences that exposed the few flaws in his team.

With five Champions League semifinal defeats on his CV —  two with Barca and three with Bayern — Guardiola has become the competition’s nearly-man since 2011, when his Messi-inspired team delivered a masterclass in the Wembley final against Manchester United.

That memorable evening stands as Guardiola’s last fond memory of the tournament and the clock is ticking on his hopes of winning it for the third time.

Worryingly for Guardiola’s hopes of lifting the famous ‘cup with the big ears’ in Istanbul later this season, City have endured a rocky start to the new Premier League season.

They are already five points behind leaders Liverpool after Saturday’s surprise 3-2 defeat at Norwich, a result that showed how badly City will miss injured centerback Aymeric Laporte.

At least City have what looks on paper a relatively undemanding group, with Atalanta and Dinamo Zagreb their other opponents.

Guardiola remains adamant his players will steer City back to calmer waters even without Laporte.

“If today you believe I have doubts in my team because we lost a game ...They gave me all the prestige I have in England,” he said after the Norwich game.

“In the first season it was ‘fraud Guardiola, Fraudiola’. OK, and how it was not possible to play this way because you have too many tackles.

“It was these players who gave me the prestige I have all round the world about how good a manager I am.”


Revamped Barcelona start new season with spotlight on Messi

Updated 24 September 2020

Revamped Barcelona start new season with spotlight on Messi

MADRID: Lionel Messi will be there when Barcelona start their season on Sunday, just as he has been for the last two decades.

His every move, however, will be scrutinized like never before.

After all, never before had Messi told the club that he wanted to leave, and never before had Messi been forced to stay.

Will Messi still give his best? Will he still be motivated? Will the transfer saga affect him?

Some of those questions may start being answered on Sunday when Barcelona open their Spanish league season against Villarreal at the Camp Nou. It will be the club’s league debut after the first two matches were postponed because of their  participation in the Champions League late last season.

The team’s last official match was the embarrassing 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals in August, one of the worst defeats in the club’s history and in Messi’s career. The result thrust Barcelona into one of their worst crises ever, and led Messi to make public his desire to leave.

The Argentina great eventually backtracked after Barcelona denied his request to leave for free. He said he didn’t want to get into a legal dispute with the “club of his life.” But Messi made it more than clear that he would have rather left, and openly criticized club president Josep Bartomeu for not keeping his promise to let him go.

Still, Messi said he would give his best despite having wanted to leave, and there were no signs of any letdown in the preparation matches in which he played ahead of what should be his final season with the club.

“For a moment I thought he wouldn’t stay with us,” Barcelona teammate Sergi Roberto said. “He’s our captain, the best player this club has ever had and the best player in the history of soccer. I couldn’t imagine Barça without Leo. It’s normal that he may have wanted a different experience, but he has given it all for this club throughout the years. He has been motivated since he came to the first team. He is very professional.”

Messi stayed but Barcelona will have a new coach as part of the profound changes announced by the club following the loss to Bayern. Ronald Koeman arrived to replace Quique Setien, and it didn’t take long before the Dutch coach said he wanted to revamp the squad. Barcelona will start the season without some of their key players from recent years, including Ivan Rakitic, who rejoined Sevilla, and Luis Suarez, who joined rival Atletico Madrid.

Also new for Barcelona is the fact that they will be coming off a trophy-less season for the first time since 2007-08. The team finished five points behind Real Madrid in the league last season despite having the lead when the competition was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic with 11 matches remaining.

 

Madrid vs. Pellegrini

Defending champion Real Madrid have a difficult second match on Saturday against Real Betis, which have won two in a row to start the season under veteran Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini, a former Madrid coach.

Madrid struggled in attack in its opening 0-0 draw at Real Sociedad last Sunday, when Eden Hazard still wasn’t available. It remains unlikely that Hazard will be fit to face Betis at the Benito Villamarín Stadium.

 

Suarez’s Atletico

Atletico will make their Spanish league debut on Sunday against Granada at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, but it’s unclear if Suarez will be ready to play after joining from Barcelona.

Diego Costa was set to be in the attack after Alvaro Morata joined Juventus to open space for Suarez.

Like Atletico and Barcelona, Sevilla also had their first two matches postponed because of European competition after winning the Europa League in August. And their  opener on Sunday at promoted Cadiz will come only three days after they play  Bayern Munich in the the Super Cup.