Pep Guardiola sank to the floor, utterly crestfallen. Lyon striker Moussa Dembele had just condemned his Manchester City side to another season without the Champions League glory they crave. Four years into his time at the Etihad Stadium, the man known as football’s greatest innovator is facing the biggest questions since his arrival.
Just 24 hours earlier, the team he loves and left in 2012, FC Barcelona, and the player he nurtured to incomparable greatness, Lionel Messi, also saw their European hopes dashed. Although their opponents were another of Guardiola’s former clubs, a fully functioning and in-form Bayern Munich side, their exit was far more humiliating than City’s as Barca were beaten 8-2 on the night.
Years of arrogant and negligent decision making has seen the Catalans fall from the heights of the Guardiola era, a four year spell during which they won 14 trophies, to the point where they were utterly embarrassed. Philippe Coutinho, the Brazilian forward signed and then discarded by Barcelona before being sent on loan to Bayern, scored twice against his parent club in an ironic twist which perhaps best sums up their problems.
Messi became the defining image of the night, as he stared into the abyss. Even he must have realised the depth of the hole the club had dug itself. Rumours of his unhappiness at Camp Nou have refused to go away for a long time but, with a year remaining on his contract and his reported ability to walk away for free every summer, the alarm bells around his future have never rung louder.
Claims that he wants a quick departure have been quashed but speculation linking him with a reunion with Guardiola at City remain at the heart of the discourse in the aftermath of the latest disaster.
Guardiola’s problems are not nearly as great. He has done what many thought he couldn’t when he moved to the Premier League in 2016. City have dominated English football, doing so in his image, with the purest version of the possession-based, attacking style he has trademarked over his ludicrously successful career.
Two Premier League titles, three League Cups and an FA Cup are on the record; there is nothing left to win domestically. City had already won those titles fairly regularly under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, albeit not with the same swagger and beauty. Guardiola’s remit is to reel in the Champions League, something he also failed to do in three years at Bayern.
Domination of that competition has been nearly impossible since its reformation in 1992. Until Real Madrid won it four times in five years between 2014-18, nobody had ever defended the title. Some of the greatest ever managers, including Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson, have only won it twice, the same number of times as Guardiola.
The issue accentuated by the 3-1 defeat to Lyon is that the man responsible for devising such a devastating and, at times, seemingly unstoppable tactical masterplan and identity, has made the same mistakes at the same crucial times. City had only once reached the semi-finals before he came in, let alone anything else, and he has spent just under £1billion without improving, or indeed matching, that record.
He has been defeated in the last 16 once and the quarter-finals three times in the last four seasons, and each time he has abandoned the system which has worked so well for him when it mattered most. Against Lyon, who finished seventh in Ligue 1 last season, he sacrificed the creativity of Bernardo Silva, David Silva and Phil Foden and played five in defence in order to nullify the attacking threat posed by the opposition in the group stage over a year earlier. City looked laboured and unsure of themselves; Guardiola was accused of overthinking things.
At Barcelona, his and the team’s identity was absolute, but it went missing long ago from the club he left behind. With Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta et al, he didn’t need a Plan B; his team were the best and made even better by his tactical genius.
In two of his four years as manager, though, they were beaten in the Champions League semi-finals. First by Inter, who would win it in 2010 led by his great rival Jose Mourinho, and Chelsea, crowned two years later under interim boss Roberto Di Matteo.
Both employed defensive strategies and completely stifled Guardiola’s team. One of the most common criticisms levelled at Guardiola is that he can’t win as well without the magical trio he once built his team around, particularly Messi, and the idea that he is constantly tinkering in key European games because he doesn’t trust his current players in the same way may be a theory with more than a little justification.
Now Messi looks lost, increasingly angry and dismayed at the situation befalling him. At 33, he probably only has a couple of years left at the very top and it seems undeniable that the mess going on around him will take longer than that to clean up. Buying him has always felt like a forbidden fantasy; he has maintained absolute loyalty to Barcelona, whom he joined as a 13-year-old, and even Guardiola has suggested it would be impossible to prize him away.
Yet, given the constant reliance on his brilliance at the behest of actual long-term planning, and some actively damaging choices such as selling the man once earmarked as his successor, Neymar, the argument that Messi owes the club something is getting thinner by the day. The current president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, constantly acts in self interest and has allowed the Blaugrana to drift from the ideals which once made them great.
The chances are that Messi will stay and help recover what he can of their formative years but the decision to hire Ronald Koeman, a former teammate of Guardiola, won’t inspire much enthusiasm. Barcelona need to start again, with a new president who can return to the core values they hollowly claim to adhere to.
Meanwhile, Guardiola may still be renowned as football’s answer to science and art simultaneously but the questions of his increasingly poor Champions League record are amplifying. It will have been 10 years since his last success by the time he gets another go at winning the prize he and City prioritise over any other. The pair working together again still feels unlikely, but if the weekend’s European action suggested anything, it is that Guardiola and Messi may need each other now more than ever.
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