Pep Guardiola is in need of a win when his Manchester City face off against near-perennial European contenders Real Madrid in the Champions League’s last 16.
The English side need not only an actual win over Zinedine Zidane’s men, but an emblematic result to restore faith in a manager whose reputation has suffered several bruises over the course of a difficult campaign.
Guardiola isn’t the one to blame for City’s off-field troubles. Their potential two-year ban from the Champions League for Financial Fair Play (FFP) breaches is—as it’s currently understood—a punishment aimed at the board, but the effect it’s had on morale has been felt in all corners of the Etihad Stadium.
It’s for that reason the Catalan coach needs to prove his leadership qualities now more than ever, and what better way than by beating the team that not long ago dominated the continental elite three years running?
Guardiola, 49, hasn’t made it past the Champions League quarter-finals in any of his three terms at the Etihad Stadium thus far, a damning statement considering his predecessor, Manuel Pellegrini, reached the final four in his last campaign with the club (2015-16).
Now in his third City season and having spent the best part of $800 million on his squad, there comes a time when those who are at times seemingly beyond condemnation must be judged.
Despite the riches afforded to him at the Etihad—perhaps not all through legal means, if UEFA's charges prove to be well-founded—Guardiola said in January he intends to keep splashing money to close the gap on Liverpool, who are 25 points clear at the English summit:
Wednesday’s opening leg will be the first time he and Zidane meet as managers in a competitive context. Remarkably, both ex-players won the Champions League in their first seasons as senior coaches—Guardiola with Barcelona in 2009 and Zidane with Real in 2016—though Zidane insisted in his pre-match press conference that this is about more than the men in the dugouts:
"This is not Zidane vs. Guardiola, it's Real Madrid vs. Manchester City. Guardiola’s shown it at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Man City. There are a lot of good coaches, but I think it's him [at the top].”
There was a time not so long ago when a large majority of the football community might have nodded in agreement, but these days the consensus is perhaps not so certain.
The Athletic’s Sam Lee recently cited a quote from one of Guardiola’s old charges at the Allianz Arena, Thomas Müller, who hinted at the doubt shown against big European teams in the past:
The suggestion has been made many times that Guardiola has been incredibly fortunate in the teams he’s managed. Upon graduating from the Barcelona B helm after a single season, he upgraded to coaching the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez with the senior side, before later inheriting a Bayern squad that was by no means lacking in star talent.
Backed by the finances of the Abu Dhabi-owned City Football Group, he’s accomplished great things in Manchester, too. Those feats include bringing City their first back-to-back English top-flight titles, as well as setting a new Premier League record points tally of 100 in the 2017-18 campaign.
But Liverpool’s emergence as the newly dominant force in England under Jurgen Klopp has led to fresh doubt in Guardiola and his ability to contend with a manager (and squad) of such pedigree.
Zidane is by no means perfect, either, a point proved after Los Blancos lost 1-0 in stunning fashion at Levante on Sunday—hardly the ideal prep as far as warm-up fixtures go.
City will most likely beat Aston Villa on Sunday to lift the Carabao Cup for a third year running under Guardiola, but the victory is at risk of seeming hollow if it coincides with a round-of-16 exit in Europe.
The Champions League has become something of a symbolic pursuit for City this season considering they may not feature in the next two, but it’s of even greater importance for Guardiola, as much of his stellar work in recent years at the club becomes overshadowed by a dominant rival and an allegedly nefarious club management.