Pep Guardiola was speculating only a few days ago that he might be sacked if he does not win the Champions League with Manchester City soon. He was probably being unduly melodramatic but, if the Uefa verdict delivered on Friday stands up to the inevitable appeal, he now has only the one chance.
Ban or no ban, Guardiola is unlikely to be in charge of City in 2023. His present contract runs out at the end of next season and at that point he will already have stayed longer at the club than at any of his previous managerial engagements. Should City have to endure two seasons in the European wilderness there will not be much point having Guardiola around anyway. He was brought in specifically for his Champions League expertise and, having won a domestic treble last season and set a points record in winning the Premier League the season before, there is little more he can do to impress on the home front.
Given City’s record of underachievement in Europe – Guardiola has admitted on several occasions it is the one area in which the club need to improve – they will do well to make it through the first round of the knockout stage starting this week. City play a week later but they have been drawn against Real Madrid in the round of 16.
Zinedine Zidane’s side are perhaps not quite the force they were since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo but they are the most successful European Cup side in history, won three successive Champions Leagues between 2016 and 2018 and sit on top of La Liga. Even if they are slightly past their best, they are packed with the sort of winning experience that City so patently lack, as Liverpool found out to their cost in the 2018 final. As a former Champions League winner as a player and a coach of Barcelona, the City manager knows the value of that experience.
Guardiola’s present club have never been to a Champions League final, let alone won one, and whenever they have fallen short in recent seasons their manager has cited a lack of winning know-how as a contributory factor.
If this is to be City’s last European campaign with Guardiola at the helm, the scrutiny when the Catalan independence sympathiser meets the Castilians of Real Madrid is bound to be intense, and not just in Spain.
There will also be much revisiting of City’s European failures over the past three seasons. In their first Champions League campaign under Guardiola they were put out by Monaco over two ludicrously high-scoring legs. Those who accuse the manager of being better at organising attack and midfield rather than defence were given plenty of ammunition as City took a 5-3 lead to the away leg and went out on away goals after a 3-1 defeat. The first game at the Etihad was far too open for most people’s liking. Yet, though conceding three times at home was asking for trouble, City should still have been able to see out the game in Monaco with a two-goal advantage.
The following year Guardiola and his players bumped into a resurgent Liverpool at the quarter-final stage. This was City’s record-breaking season in the Premier League but Liverpool were like men on a mission on their way to the 2018 final and three goals in quick succession in the first match at Anfield put the tie beyond their reach. If that could be considered unlucky – not many teams would have lived with Liverpool at the time and mighty Barcelona were humbled at Anfield a year later – what happened last season was even worse.
Once again City met an English team en route to the final, though no one realised at the time that Tottenham would go so far. They probably would not have done but for a late VAR goal decision that went in their favour and left City no time to react. The dream was over once again before it had properly gained momentum and, if Guardiola was starting to believe fate was conspiring against him adding with City to his Champions League medal collection, at the time he would have had many sympathisers.
People will have less sympathy now the club have been thrown out of the competition, even if the irregularities that led to a €30m fine and two-season suspension were nothing to do with Guardiola. The manager has always said he would accept any Uefa ruling and just get on with his job, though that was when City were going relatively well in the Premier League. Now they are 22 points behind Liverpool, an embarrassing fall-off given the standards set in the past couple of seasons, with nothing to play for.
Guardiola said last week that it was still a matter of pride for the club to finish second in the table to ensure automatic Champions League qualification for next season but, if there is not going to be any Champions League next season, there is even less incentive to keep going than there is at the moment. All that Guardiola and his players can do, assuming the punishment is upheld, is try to make the most of this season in Europe. Guardiola trying to progress at the expense of Real Madrid was always going to be big news – now it is enormous. And even if City survive that, there might be another English opponent lying in wait in the quarter-finals.