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Guardiola the biggest threat to his own Champions League chances

It felt unthinkable at half time against Chelsea on Saturday night that Manchester City wouldn’t end the day being crowned Premier League champions for the third time in four years. Raheem Sterling had just scored the opener and, although Sergio Aguero had seen a panenka penalty go horribly wrong, there was little sign of what was to come.

Thomas Tuchel rallied his troops and they scored twice in the second half, including in stoppage time, to spoil the party. This is not panic stations for City or Pep Guardiola. Completing the job is still very much only a matter of time but the fact that Tuchel has now beaten Guardiola twice in three weeks, the same amount of time until they meet again in the Champions League final, is a more pressing concern.

Since arriving in England in the summer of 2016, Guardiola has simultaneously maintained his air of superiority and appeared more beatable than he ever did at Barcelona or Bayern Munich. His Manchester City side — record breakers in 2018, relentless in 2019 and dominant in 2021 — are probably the best in the world. But only now do they look ready to conquer Europe, which was the main reason for bringing Guardiola to the club.

Evidence suggests he has never been in such an unforgiving environment and, as difficult as City are to handle, they are also susceptible to defeat if they are not at their best. Last season’s entire league campaign proved that.

At the weekend, they quite clearly had their eye elsewhere. Nine changes and a rather different formation took the edge off their performance. Guardiola, who said that the ‘champagne was in the fridge’ after a recent win at Crystal Palace, could well be looking forward to the final. Yet, this is not the first time City wobbled when it mattered with regards confirming a Premier League crown.

Over three years ago, they had the chance to celebrate their success against neighbours, and second-placed, Manchester United with a win at the Etihad Stadium. Just like Saturday, they were leading at half time, and just like Saturday, their momentum was squashed by a comeback.

Until the job is done, questions and doubts have chance to fester. City know they are champions elect but two defeats to Chelsea is hardly conducive to a smooth build up for their biggest game of the season against them, in a competition both club and manager have long struggled to deal with.

Guardiola has never been able to replicate his record of two Champions League wins in three years at Barcelona. He never got past the semi-finals with Bayern and this is the first year be broke that particular barrier with City. Bad luck will always play a part in any knockout tournament but the biggest issue for both is that Guardiola’s greatest asset has too often been a curse in Europe.

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No coach is as tactically advanced as him. He is constantly finding new, innovative and complicated ways of winning games and has done so much for the general advancement of the understanding of modern football. All too often, though, he has overthought the situation and ended up abandoning the approach which got his teams to that point in the first place.

It was more prevalent at Bayern — when he changed tactics at the behest of his players ahead of a clash with Real Madrid in 2014 and then allowed himself to be outmanoeuvred by Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid two years later.

The finest example of this issue impacting City is last season when, against a talented but beatable Lyon side, Guardiola attempted to shift the focus onto stopping the opposition by playing a specifically unambitious three-man defence, rather than focussing on his own team. A victory at the Etihad in the previous campaign’s group stage showed that Lyon carried a threat but the selection was bizarre and unsurprisingly led to a flat, ineffectual performance when it mattered most.

Ironically, in his days at Barcelona, the two occasions which led to an early European exit stemmed from a stubborn refusal to show tactical flexibility. Low defensive blocks, from Inter and then Chelsea, proved his undoing. Perhaps those games had a lasting impact on him.

There were fears that Guardiola would overthink against both Borussia Dortmund and then Paris Saint-Germain this season but the latter tie saw two of City’s finest ever displays in the Champions League. There is a feeling that they are hitting the right notes but while Saturday’s match wasn’t the most pressing concern despite what was riding on it, it still involved some worrying Guardiola hallmarks including mass personnel and system changes which clearly affected the team’s fluidity. The fact that Tuchel, whose approach is balanced and set in stone, has got the better of him twice could counteract City’s tag as favourites.

With all that said, his record in finals is nothing short of astonishing. Excluding Super Cups, Guardiola has lost just one in his career. Usually, when the job needs doing, he gets it done, but he needs to keep his head.

There is only one coach clever enough to outwit Pep Guardiola and that is himself. Should he keep things simple and consistent, City will have a superb chance of lifting a first European trophy at the end of May. The trouble is, recent history suggests he may not do that.

 


 

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