ONLY THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE WILL DO FOR PEP AND BAYERN
In any normal circumstances, Pep Guardiola would be going into his third campaign as Bayern Munich manager on the crest of a wave. Another Bundesliga title was added to the Bavarians’ ever-burgeoning trophy cabinet in May, 12 months on from their domestic double in Guardiola’s debut season at the helm. The former Barcelona boss may have only coached two genuine giants of the game, but a record of 10 major trophies (and a further nine minor ones including Super Cups and the Club World Cup) since 2008 remains truly outstanding.
There is nothing normal, however, about managing Bayern Munich: the 25-time German champions are not nicknamed FC Hollywood for nothing. Guardiola thus finds himself in the unusual position of being under pressure heading into the 2015-16 season despite winning three pieces of silverware in his two years in charge to date.
It is a reflection of the state of the modern game and the superpowers within it that the domestic league championship is becoming more and more of an irrelevance for Bayern with every passing year. Despite losing three of their final four games after the title had been wrapped up last term, Guardiola’s side still topped the table by a margin of 10 points. The previous year, they had their hands on the trophy with a record seven matches to spare.
Increasingly, then, Bayern’s season is coming to be defined by a handful of matches in the knockout stages of the Champions League: Wolfsburg, Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen may be good sides, but they are simply not strong enough to challenge for the league.
As triumphing in the Bundesliga is thus pretty much guaranteed before a ball has even been kicked, the European Cup has taken on even greater significance. Bayern may have won admirers from across the continent as they scooped the prize in 2013 but, in successive seasons under Guardiola, they have fallen short at the business end of the competition.
Their semi-final defeat to Real Madrid two campaigns ago was emphatic and the first time a Guardiola team had been so comprehensively dismissed in such a big game. After edging the first leg 1-0, Los Blancos thrashed Bayern in Munich to record a 5-0 aggregate victory. It was a humbling that Guardiola had never tasted in his managerial career before.
Things were closer in the final four last time out, even if Die Roten almost did not make it that far following a quarter-final scare against Porto. Bayern were not as bad as they had been the previous year but again fell short, losing out to eventual champions Barcelona 5-3 over two legs.
There is a feeling, therefore, that Guardiola must get his hands on European football’s principal continental prize before he can be considered an undisputed success in Munich. With the former midfielder’s contract expiring in June, this season could be his final chance to do so.
Despite the recent extension of Manuel Pellegrini’s deal in the northwest of England, the rumours linking Guardiola to Manchester City refuse to go away. Unless Pellegrini wins the Champions League – and on the evidence of his two cracks at the competition with City so far, that is extremely improbable – he is likely to depart next summer, with Guardiola clearly the owners’ first-choice replacement. Having worked with director of football Txiki Begiristain at Barcelona, it would certainly seem a logical move.
The 44-year-old is such a perfectionist, though, that it is difficult to see him departing Bayern until he either wins the Champions League or is told to leave by the club’s hierarchy. Lifting the trophy this year would not only be the perfect way to sign off in Munich, but also a way to fully shake off the unfair accusations that he has got a bit lucky in his managerial career to date given the world-class nature of the players he has had at his disposal.
This season is all about Guardiola’s hunt to become the third man to win three European Cups as a coach after Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti. For now, all the talk of Man City can wait.