For a moment Pep Guardiola has been able to sit back and delight in what he, his players and Manchester City’s staff have achieved.
A season of relentless intensity has not quite reached its conclusion but the weeks between Manchester City’s confirmation as Premier League champions and Saturday’s Champions League final (on CBS and Paramount+) have at least offered Guardiola and those around him a moment to breath and appreciate what they have accomplished. Two trophies are already secured, the Premier League and EFL Cup, while this club’s holy grail, the European Cup, is within touching distance. Chelsea stand in their way in Porto on Saturday.
The football that has taken them there has, on occasion, been breathtaking. In the moment Guardiola can relish seeing his team in action — “I’m a spectator as well just like you” — but only now has he been able to truly appreciate what his side has achieved.
“I would love [to take a step back and enjoy things] but you know what happens with this crazy schedule, in three days you have another game you have to think about,” Guardiola told CBS Sports in an interview ahead of the Champions League final. “When we had the 21 victories in a row it was because immediately you planned for the next one, if not you can’t win 21 in a row. That’s why you don’t have too much time to reflect, to think about it.
“Like a routine machine making pizzas: pizzas, pizzas, pizzas, pizzas. It’s the same: next game, next game. Now in the summertime, in this period since we won the Premier League three weeks ago you have that time to enjoy it, to think about it and what you have to do [next].”
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The Champions League final has been a long time coming for Guardiola. After winning two with Barcelona in his first three seasons of management, he has not been back since. There have been near misses with Bayern Munich and Manchester City, matches where his side’s fate was decided by the finest of margins.
In 2016 Bayern were eliminated by Atletico Madrid on the away goals in a tie where they had 53 shots to their opponents 18. Three years later Raheem Sterling thought he had fired City past Tottenham and into the semifinals only for VAR to intervene.
It might seem that City have not had to worry about such fine margins this season. A defense anchored by the outstanding Ruben Dias has kept eight clean sheets throughout the competition and conceded just four goals in 12 games. Of those matches 11 have ended with Guardiola’s side victorious including all six knockout games.
Yet suggest to the 50-year-old that this might have been a season where the details did not come into the equation and you will get short shrift. “No, no. It’s not true. We are in the final for the little details.
“You have to be consistent in many things and play good but at the end the little margins make the difference. I have to admit it, this year the coin fell down on our side.”
Guardiola betrays no anxiety in front of the cameras as he prepares for his first Champions League final in a decade. Dressed in his familiar uniform of a grey sweater, jeans and trainers even bumping his head on an overhanging microphone as he takes a seat does nothing to knock him off his stride. He is charming, relaxed and speaks with great warmth about the club that he has made his home for longer than any other he has managed.
Though he acknowledges the game itself will bring with it “pressure, nerves and anxiety” he does not seem unduly concerned. Asked what he has learned from two meetings with opponents Chelsea, both of which have ended in victories for Thomas Tuchel’s side, he simply says “how good they are” before offering them congratulations on reaching the final in Porto. He does not seem to be weighed down by a sense that it is now or never, indeed in his press conference he spoke of how “sometimes you need time” to go from finalist to European champion, as he did during his playing days with Barcelona.
Next season will be Guardiola’s sixth in England and he is already tied down to 2023. Should he reach the end of that contract the manager who seemed burned out after three years with Barcelona and then Bayern will be second on the list of longest-serving City managers since 1945. One suspects that if he wanted to better Les McDowall’s 13 year reign from 1950 the club hierarchy, which includes former Barcelona colleagues Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, would be happy to let him do so, even if Guardiola insists that he needs to keep winning to keep his job.
“The club give me everything I need to be happy. Not just the players, the managers deserve to be happy. Here I have everything… except the weather, we’re in May and in cold jackets. Except for that, it’s a perfect club to be at. Support from the hierarchy, good players, good environment, people working for the same intentions: that’s why I’m comfortable.
“If we win, I can stay. You know [for] the managers the contract is just a piece of paper. If you don’t win you’ll be sacked.”
This longer tenure has offered Guardiola a chance to build afresh, to craft a new team. The last titan of City’s rise to the summit of English football will depart after the Champions League final, Sergio Aguero set to join his close friend Lionel Messi at Barcelona.
In place of Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Joe Hart have come a new team that seems well-placed to compete for years to come under Guardiola. Dias has only just turned 24, Phil Foden is 21 in a few days’ time while of those who started the second leg against PSG only one — Fernandinho — is over 30.
Guardiola still sees room for development. “Always you have the feeling that you can do better,” he says. “We’re satisfied when we play, when we win and it helps to improve but always we have to do it better.”
As to how he actually improves a squad riven with world-class players he acknowledges “it’s a challenge”. He adds: “If the players don’t accept that they can do better it’s impossible. When one player improves it is because he wants to be improved.
“If he doesn’t, you can do whatever you want. The football belongs to them. Everything that happens starts from here [he points to his head] and you are open-minded and you say that they are just good football players who can be much, much better. In that moment we will be good.”
They already are very good indeed. And while the stakes of Saturday night mean he might not be able to avoid the tension Guardiola says he will at least try to enjoy it. If his side carry on the form that got them to the final he might even be able to.