High wire action for nervy City on day of reckoning
Only once in his 14-year managerial career has Pep Guardiola gone a season without winning a trophy. That was in his first campaign in English football when he had the mitigation of taking over a new team in Manchester City, in a new country, a new environment and implementing his own ways.
Even so, that April, in 2017, the Spaniard admitted: “No silverware — it will not be a good season.”
The rest is history: three Premier League titles, four League Cups and one FA Cup to add to the 14 trophies he won with Barcelona and the seven he collected at Bayern Munich. Only Alex Ferguson has won more silverware. And Guardiola is only 51 — although he certainly will not manage for as long as Ferguson.
Beyond that, Guardiola has stamped his influence on the English game. He set the standard that other managers, led by Jurgen Klopp, have attempted to match. And yet, if City do not defeat Aston Villa today and lose the Premier League title to Liverpool, then it will be a barren season for them and their manager, which, given the quality they possess, is almost unthinkable.
It will be even more unthinkable, given the rivalry, that surrendering the title to Liverpool and Klopp would also furnish them with the third, the most unlikely third, trophy on the way to that unprecedented quadruple, which is an achievement that could only ever be matched, never beaten.
There will be a maelstrom of emotions at City — and with Guardiola — if Liverpool were to then go on and win the Champions League next Saturday against Real Madrid in Paris, given how agonisingly close they came to beating the Spanish giants in the semi-finals.
The wounds from that second-leg loss at the Bernabeu are still raw, even if Guardiola’s anger was reserved for the first game as he believed City were careless at home when they had the chance to put the tie beyond Real’s reach, winning 4-3.
Have City been careless in the Premier League? Having opened up a 14-point lead over Liverpool at one stage, albeit after playing two games more — which prompted Guardiola to call it a “fake” advantage — then it would appear the case.
But City have been relentless; as have Liverpool. These two teams are setting crazy standards. Since the turn of the year, City have dropped just 11 points from a possible 51 and yet that has still allowed Liverpool to narrow the gap. City could finish the season with an incredible goal difference of plus 72 and 91 points — good enough to win the league in 23 of the 29 Premier League seasons (one of those in which it would not have been enough was a 42-game campaign in 1993-’94 when Manchester United finished on 92 points) and still end up second.
It would leave them open to the accusation, as declared by Guardiola himself, that “it will not be a good season”, especially after the club spent a British record £100m to sign Jack Grealish last summer when the obvious priority was a striker and with the manager disappointed not to get Harry Kane. They have remedied that with the signing of Erling Haaland, but that is for next season.
A little like Real, Klopp’s side just do not go away. Liverpool just do not know when they are beaten even if, technically, City are a superior team.
It has left Guardiola on a high wire. Under him, City look like one of the best teams ever to grace English football, but what does that mean in a trophyless season?
Even for someone with the cast-iron belief of Guardiola, that would be a dent to the confidence and, intriguingly, he is not signing a new contract yet, despite Klopp having renewed his with Liverpool. Guardiola has one more year after this campaign and has indicated he would like to stay, and City are desperate for him to do so, but it is not a given.
Failing to win the Champions League during his time at City would hurt — just as it hurt him at Bayern — and a barren season would compound that. It will probably make him more determined to stay, but maybe he might reason why he is falling short.
Of course there should be some context: it would be a major shock if City do not beat Villa. Although City and Guardiola could be forgiven for fearing there might just be another twist with the Liverpool connections of Steven Gerrard leading their opponents. The resolve City showed in coming back from 2-0 down last weekend at West Ham United shows their determination, although there will also be regret around Riyad Mahrez’s late penalty miss.
If he had scored the title would have been City’s — given their far superior goal difference — and we would not be going into a final-day decider just as we did in 2019.
Then City were away to Brighton, with Liverpool at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers, as they are again this weekend.
Sadio Mané put Liverpool ahead and Brighton also went in front. Briefly, City were slipping up although, in truth, they always looked like getting the result they needed and equalised just 83 seconds later before going on to win 4-1 and pip Liverpool by a point.
They will desperately be hoping that history will repeat itself with City also having won the league title at the Etihad on the final day 10 years ago.
Guardiola, despite a deep admiration for Liverpool, will be frustrated that it has even come to this for a side who have scored four goals or more in a third of their league games.
If Manchester City fail today, that frustration will definitely lead to criticism. It shows how fine the margins are.
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