Opinion: Pep Guardiola and Manchester City’s slumbering season has finally sprung into life
- With defining wins at Leicester, Real Madrid and against Villa at Wembley, Pep Guardiola and Manchester City have shut down their critics.
'Serial winner' Pep Guardiola lifted yet another domestic silverware with Manchester City after their hard-fought 2-1 victory against Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup final on Sunday. The Blues have now remarkably managed to clinch eight out of the last ten possible accolades in English football and are heavy favourites to retain the FA Cup as well. City might have surrendered their league title to Liverpool this season, however, Guardiola’s stellar side should still be revered as one of the best the country has witnessed in recent history.
There was a heavy sigh of relief among City fans when Chris Kavanagh blew the final whistle at Wembley which halted Villa’s relentless pressure towards the end. Sergio Aguero’s opener quickly followed by Rodri’s towering header should have buried the game in the first half itself, but a John Stones’ error meant that Mbawana Samatta equalised and Villa bravely fought on. Manchester City had several chances to put some daylight between them and their opponents but they could not capitalise. City’s inefficiencies in front of goal in the second half were margins away from being punished in the dying minutes of the match as Bjorn Engels forced Claudio Bravo to tip the ball onto the post only for Stones to make a last-gasp clearance.
City’s triumph at Wembley was on the back of their club’s most historic European away night on Wednesday when they defiantly came back to crush Real Madrid hearts in the Champions League Round of 16 first leg. Guardiola bravely left out Aguero for that encounter, and also put Raheem Sterling and Fernandinho on the bench against the 13-time European champions, twitching and tweaking his tactics in order to out-master Zinedine Zidane. Gabriel Jesus was given a much deeper role on the left-flank whilst Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva led an unusual 4-4-2 formation at the Santiago Bernabeu, one of world football’s most intimidating places to visit.
Given that City bosses are dealing with a plethora of off-the-pitch issues this season, which includes investigations by UEFA and the Premier League over potential bans, points deductions and trophy-waivers, there was a gritty feeling around the club that they just had to give it all against Madrid. Even Guardiola, in the build-up to the match, reminded his players of their domestic successes, European failures and dodgy refereeing decisions of the past to augment this rebellious, siege mentality among the team. And on Wednesday, as fans screeched “City’s going down with a billion in the bank”, mocking the rumours of them potentially being relegated to the third-tier of English football, Manchester City showed that they are, indeed, ‘talent, not money’.
When Isco gave Madrid the lead against the run of play in the second half, it typified Guardiola and Manchester City’s Champions League frailties. Fans who made the 1,300-mile journey to the Spanish capital had all seen that movie before in Europe: play well, create chances and pressurise the opponent only to concede silly goals and get knocked out of the competition. However, this time, Guardiola would not go down without fighting. He put out Raheem Sterling for the last 15 minutes and the winger ran the white-clad defenders ragged, stretching and tiring them. Kevin de Bruyne’s moment of magic came just five minutes later when he twisted and turned in the box to ping a cross into Gabriel Jesus who leapt above Sergio Ramos and nodded past Thibaut Courtois.
Sterling then used his blistering pace to get past Dani Carvajal only for the Spaniard to bring him down and concede a tie-defining penalty. With City’s abysmal record from the spot this season, it would not have been a great surprise if the ball went skying into the stand. However, De Bruyne came up clutch as he sent his Belgian compatriot Courtois on the wrong side with a tiny part of the stadium erupting in full voice.
City’s captain on the night did not even celebrate the monumental goal overtly, as is his personality, but also purely because he knows there is still a titanic return game to come at the Etihad. That game could be another chaotic encounter where either City’s European fissures surface once again or a night where City put their stamp on Champions League football by conquering over, as Guardiola stated, one of its undisputed “kings”.
After what has been a long campaign in Liverpool’s darkening shadow, Pep Guardiola’s European outcasts, with back-to-back conquests at Leicester, in Madrid and at Wembley, have finally emerged on their own this season.Published 02 Mar 2020, 21:02 IST