It has not been the best of weeks for Pep Guardiola’s “brand,” but the Manchester City manager can at least look forward to an FA Cup semifinal against Arsenal this weekend as a means to redress the balance.
The Barcelona team he created suffered what could be an era-ending Champions League quarterfinal exit at the hands of Juventus on Wednesday (3-0 on aggregate), while 24 hours earlier, the Bayern Munich squad he left behind for Carlo Ancelotti last summer was licking its wounds after their own quarterfinal elimination (6-3 on aggregate) against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Clearly, Guardiola’s connection to both results is diminished by the passing of time and his new loyalties to City, but in both Europe and the Premier League, the winds of change are blowing and the Guardiola approach no longer appears to be the one most likely to dominate world football.
Juventus and Atletico Madrid head into the Champions League semifinals as teams who put the art of defending above the beautiful passing football espoused by Guardiola, while Chelsea remain four points clear at the top of the Premier League, despite their recent wobble, largely because of the defensive strengths engineered by Antonio Conte.
But why is this relevant now? Well, having arrived at City last summer heralded as the greatest coach in the game, a man who lived and breathed success, Sunday’s Wembley clash against Arsenal offers Guardiola his final chance of silverware in his first season at the Etihad.
Going into the game, all the focus is on Arsene Wenger and his future as Arsenal manager. Can the Frenchman salvage something from a disastrous campaign? Will he sign a new contract and stay on beyond the end of the season?
It is all about Wenger, but even if nobody is focusing on Guardiola, you can safely assume that the City manager will be scrutinising himself as he tries to live up to the billing of club chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak, who was unequivocal when asked last June why he had appointed the Spaniard.
“The trophies,” Al Mubarak said. “He has won every single club competition out there, from Champions League to La Liga, the Bundesliga, to the respective cups in both leagues he has played.
“We are getting a proven winner, a passionate man, someone I think will be an incredible asset to Manchester City and I have no doubt that he will transform our team to a whole new level.”
Nobody at City would have imagined that, heading into the final month of Guardiola’s first season, the only trophy still available to their superstar manager would be the FA Cup.
The club’s Champions League campaign ended with a naive round-of-16 exit on away goals after a 6-6 aggregate draw against Monaco, when City’s suicidal defending gifted Leonardo Jardim’s team their passport to the quarterfinals. And the Premier League has been a write-off for months, despite a…