It’s a decade since Pep Guardiola won the Champions League.
If that already feels an absurdly long time for someone widely feted as the greatest active soccer manager, consider that Guardiola hasn’t even reached the final across those 10 years despite leading the top teams in Spain, Germany and England in that period.
So, can his latest iteration at Manchester City — a relentless, record-shattering team closing in on another English Premier League title — end the wait?
Guardiola, at least in public, is trying not to get caught up in the hype.
“It’s nothing special, nothing different,” Guardiola said of the Champions League on Tuesday, a day before City plays Borussia Moenchengladbach in the first leg of the round of 16.
Pushed repeatedly about the significance of the Champions League — surely, for example, it is bigger than the English League Cup? — Guardiola used the same old mantra, in a clear attempt to take the pressure off both him and City.
“We’re going to play the game tomorrow like we played the last games, and I would say the whole season in all competitions,” he said. “Nothing special. It’s a football game. Ninety minutes.
“We’re going to do a good game, to try to continue and get a good result, and afterward think about West Ham (in the Premier League), Saturday, 12:30. That’s the target. The same process mentally.”
It’s understandable why Guardiola is trying to keep a lid on expectations, considering the pain City has gone through attempting to become European champion for the first time after years of heavy spending under its Abu Dhabi ownership. Since the Spaniard arrived in 2016, City has been eliminated by Monaco in the last 16, Liverpool then Tottenham in the quarterfinals and then — perhaps most disappointingly — Lyon in a one-legged quarterfinal last season.
Guardiola has been accused of overthinking his tactics for knockout games, like when he changed formation to match Lyon’s in August — serving only to undermine the strengths of his own team because he was preoccupied by a more limited opponent, at least on paper.
On Tuesday, Guardiola hinted that such overthinking might be a thing of the past.
“We are going to prepare the game like a normal game,” he said. “We are going to treat Moenchengladbach as a team like we have done against Arsenal, like against Liverpool, like Everton, like against Tottenham (in recent Premier League matches).
“We’re not going to change absolutely anything — little details to adapt a little what they are, but it’s not different to what we do most of the time in the Premier League.”
Giving extra hope that this finally might be Guardiola’s — and indeed City’s — season is a defense that was the tightest of all the teams in the group stage, conceding just one goal in six games, and proving almost impenetrable domestically.
During a 13-match winning run in the Premier League which has earned the team a 10-point lead with 13 games remaining, City has let in just three goals. It’s only seven goals conceded in 25 games in all competitions since City was last defeated on Nov. 21 — at Tottenham 2-0.
The offseason signing of Portugal center back Ruben Dias from Benfica has been huge, his impact being compared to that of Virgil van Dijk at Liverpool. Like Van Dijk, Dias — despite being just 23 — is a natural leader and a calming influence to those around him.
Fellow center back John Stones has clearly benefitted from the presence of Dias and is in the best form of his career. Attacking full back Joao Cancelo has also been offering a new dimension to the team with his position sense and creativity.
“It’s full credit to our manager,” City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan said on Tuesday. “He adjusted the right things at the right time. He saw that something was wrong, something was a bit missing and adjusted a couple of things in terms of how we defend and how we play with the ball.
“That’s why he is the best manager in the world. It’s incredible. I never thought, to be honest, in December about where we are now in February.”
Guardiola’s disappointing recent record in the Champions League stretches back to before his time at City, when he was eliminated in the semifinals in all three seasons he coached Bayern Munich (2014-16).
Both of his Champions League titles came with Barcelona, in 2009 and ’11.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80