OLIVER HOLT: Pep knows legends are made winning European Cups

OLIVER HOLT: Pep Guardiola knows legends and legacies are made winning European Cups… he may not agree, but his reputation as this generation’s finest would elevate significantly by winning Man City their first Champions League

  • The Champions League is the trophy escaping Pep Guardiola at Man City
  • He is relaxed about his legacy but winning the tournament definitely enhances it
  • Premier League titles are important but it is Europe that the game’s stars crave 

It was standing room only at Pep Guardiola’s pre-match press conference. Camera crews were stacked up on the stairs at the side of the auditorium. One man, sitting in the middle of the second row, was giving a running commentary on the Manchester City manager’s answers for the benefit of his listeners until an icy glare from a club official shut him up.

Guardiola was in good humour. He was relaxed. He poked fun at attempts to describe his legacy as he enters a defining few weeks in his career. 

‘My legacy is exceptional already,’ he said. He said he felt ‘blessed’ to be contesting a finely-poised Champions League semi-final second leg tie with Real Madrid on Wednesday night.

Then he said something about his plan for the game that almost caused a collective intake of breath. ‘I have an idea we can do something differently,’ he said. He couldn’t say what, he said, in case Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti was listening.

The answer hung in the air as Guardiola answered another question. Then somebody went back to it. He had another go at asking Guardiola what he was thinking of changing and why he was thinking of changing it.

Pep Guardiola was in good spirits for his pre-Real Madrid press conference on Tuesday

The room was packed, with plenty of questions about Guardiola’s legacy should Man City lose

Guardiola got it all of a sudden and he grinned. He realised he had raised the spectre of the tactical tweaks in City’s Champions League quarter-final against Spurs in 2019, against Lyon at the same stage in 2020 and the final against Chelsea the following year that had not worked.

He realised people were going to think, ‘Here we go again’. He knows that, fairly or not, he has earned himself a reputation for going rogue on big nights in Europe with City. He realised imaginations were running wild already. Erling Haaland in the centre of defence, perhaps? So he humoured his audience.

‘Hopefully you can see tomorrow,’ Guardiola said. ‘It’s nothing special. I’m not overthinking it. Don’t worry. It’s nothing different from what we’ve done, just more fluid in attack and play a bit better.’

From then on, the thrust of Guardiola’s message was that he and City have to do everything they can to treat the showdown with the 14-time winners of the competition as just another game to be negotiated in the same way City have negotiated an awe-inspiring unbeaten streak that has catapulted them into contention for the Treble.

Everyone knows how important the tie is, not least because the widely-held assumption is that it is the final in disguise. If City beat Madrid, the odds are that they will win the Champions League for the first time in their history in Istanbul on June 10.

And if that happens, Guardiola will have won the competition three times, City will have become only the second English team to have won the Treble and his reputation as the pre-eminent coach of his generation, and perhaps of all-time, will be greatly enhanced.

Guardiola is relaxed but he knows that a Champions League win would elevate his reputation

He took City to the final in 2021 but overthought his tactics and they lost against Chelsea

Kyle Walker, City’s full back, who had played so well against Vinicius Junior in the first leg at the Bernabeu last week, acknowledged the importance of the game by putting it in the context of the glorious history of their local rivals. 

‘You just have to look over the road at Manchester United and what they have accomplished over a number of years,’ he said.

Walker knows, just as Guardiola also knows, that legends, and legacies, are made by winning European Cups and Champions Leagues. 

Premier League titles are, of course, important and City are about to secure their fifth in six years but it is winning the Champions League that elite players and managers crave more than anything.

‘My legacy,’ Guardiola said, ‘is that we’ve had one hell of a time and for many years they will remember a generation of players who for five or six years scored lots of goals and conceded very few and that we won lots of things and won very well and people should remember that.

‘It would be a good book, whether or not they will remember us I don’t know but we have had a good time. We have been here to this stage of the competition many times. We are not stupid enough to not know how important it is.

‘I’ve told the players to enjoy the moment. We are incredibly lucky to be here. It’s in our hands. It depends on us. We don’t have to do anything exceptional, just win one game to reach the final.’

City are chasing a Treble and winning the European Cup would be their crowning glory

The tie is a mouth-watering prospect. It felt in the 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu last week as if City were the better team but Madrid were the smarter team. City exerted control but Madrid exuded danger. City are desperate to hurdle the final barrier. Madrid have leapt it many times before.

The match may be decided in midfield or in the battle between Walker and Vinicius or Haaland and Antonio Rudiger. Or maybe it will be decided in the head of Guardiola. Before he closed his press conference, it felt as if he was giving himself a tutorial.

‘In football, in this competition, I have lost more semi-finals than I have won,’ the Spaniard continued, ‘so there are many things you cannot control but my only wish is for us to be ourselves. We are blessed to be here.

‘Tomorrow at 8pm we have to do the best game. Don’t think about the past, be at our best, get up, dress well and perform the best that we can. That’s what we will be trying, we’ve thought about it and we know what we are capable of doing.’

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