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.”


Neymar limps off as Brazil draw with Nigeria

Updated 14 October 2019

Neymar limps off as Brazil draw with Nigeria

  • The 27-year-old’s return to Champions League action may now be delayed

SINGAPORE: Neymar limped off injured early on as Brazil played out a 1-1 friendly draw against a spirited Nigeria at the Singapore National Stadium on Sunday.

The five-time world champions fell behind in the first half, but Casemiro's equalizer early in the second period prevented a loss but then  Brazil were unable to leave Southeast Asia with a victory by wasting chances, after also being held by Senegal on Thursday.

Brazil started well, with Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino firing just wide in the third minute after a smart turn near the penalty spot.

However, Brazil were dealt a major blow when Neymar limped off in the 12th minute with what appeared to be a left thigh problem — the Paris Saint-Germain striker replaced by Bayern Munich’s Philippe Coutinho to bring a premature end to his 101st international appearance.

Neymar's return to Champions League action may now be delayed, with PSG facing Club Brugge on Oct. 22 after the world’s most expensive player missed the first two games through suspension.

“During the match he felt a muscle injury, so I took him off as a precaution,” Brazil coach Tite said.

“Neymar did not have a muscle issue before the match. I would never start a player if they had a hint of a problem like this, I would never pay that price,” Tite added of the 27-year-old, who has suffered a string of injuries since his move from Barcelona to PSG in 2017.

“My career has taught me that I would never use a player if he was not in condition to play. It would be irresponsible of me to risk a player carrying an injury.”

Neymar will be disappointed he was unable to draw level with Brazil legend Ronaldo, who sits second in the country’s all-time scoring list behind Pele, on 62 international goals this week. But Nigeria provided resolute opposition by working hard to prevent the South Americans from forging many clear openings.

Gabriel Jesus, Firmino and Coutinho all went close for Brazil, but it was Nigeria who took the lead in the 35th minute when Joe Aribo burst through a gap in the South Americans' defence and skipped around Marquinhos before firing low past goalkeeper Ederson from close range.

The smart strike was the English-born player's second goal in two appearance for Nigeria after the Rangers midfielder scored on his debut against Ukraine last month.

A more determined Brazil needed just three minutes after the interval to draw level, however, as Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro slotted home after a Marquinhos header had rattled the crossbar following a well-worked corner.

Brazil ramped up the pressure as the match progressed, stretching the Nigeria defence with sharp passing and clever movement as Casemiro, Jesus and half-time substitute Richarlison all came close to giving their side the lead.

Tite's men poured forward in search of a winner with Coutinho guilty of wasting a glorious opportunity with five minutes remaining when the unmarked midfielder's weak effort was cleared off the line by Semi Ajayi.

"I thought it was a good match for us and we created plenty of chances but just could not get that second goal," Tite added. "We definitely missed Neymar's creativity after he went off."