Guardiola closes in on silencing critics for good
MANCHESTER. — Manchester City are on the brink of a historic treble as Pep Guardiola targets Champions League vindication in Saturday’s final against Inter Milan.
Inter stand in the way of City matching the greatest ever achievement in English football by emulating Manchester United’s class of 1998/99 in winning the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in the same season.
For Guardiola, meanwhile, a moment of personal validation awaits in Istanbul after his 12-year drought in the competition.
The Catalan is widely regarded as the greatest coach of his generation with 11 league titles to his name in just 14 seasons in charge of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City.
But since winning the Champions League in 2011 for the second time in his first three years at Barca, Guardiola has suffered a series of agonising European exits.
After losing a dramatic semifinal to Chelsea in his final year at the Camp Nou, Guardiola’s three years at Bayern were marred by three more defeats in the last four.
At City, it took five tries just to break the quarterfinals, but he again fell just short in the final to Chelsea two years ago.
A miraculous late fightback from Real Madrid in last season’s semifinal inflicted more heartbreak on City.
Guardiola’s team selection in losing the 2021 final was just one of a number where he has stood accused of “overthinking” and getting in the way of a richly-talented squad.
But his tactical nous has shone through to turn what had been a troublesome campaign until February into potentially the greatest the club has ever enjoyed.
Guardiola publicly questioned his players’ hunger to keep on winning trophies in January, while it took time for the team to acclimatise to having Erling Haaland up front, even if the 52-goal Norwegian was prolific from the off.
Many questioned the decision to jettison Joao Cancelo in the January transfer window, leaving City desperately short on natural full-backs.
But Guardiola had a plan as a switch to a back three, with centre-back John Stones pushed forward into the midfield role that Cancelo had occupied in previous seasons, sparked a devastating run of form.
“I can’t speak highly enough of him,” said City winger Jack Grealish of his manager.
“He’s a bit weird the way he just knows everything. There are games I come into and think ‘what’s he going to come out with today’ and he just comes out with different tactics every game. He’s a pleasure to work with.”
Yet stability has also been key to City’s charge to Istanbul this weekend.
Ten players have started all of the last five Champions League games as the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden and Julian Alvarez have been consistently frozen out. After thrashing Bayern 4-1 on aggregate in the quarterfinals, City took revenge on Madrid by routing the defending champions 4-0 at a jubilant Etihad Stadium in the semifinal second leg. Guardiola has already made City the dominant force of English football with five league titles in the past six seasons.
However, he recognises that Champions League success will bring a status that no number of domestic titles can provide. — Reuters