He’s the most successful manager in the history of Manchester City football club, and one of the most in-demand managers anywhere in the world – so why is it that some people believe that Pep Guardiola needs to bring the European Champions League trophy to the City of Manchester Stadium by the end of this season if he’s to keep his job? Is it press sensationalism, or could the likable Spaniard really be on his way after four highly successful seasons if he ends this term without it?
If you ask the man himself, he’ll tell you he’s going nowhere. He has a contract with the club, he seems to be enjoying his time there, and he has no intention of leaving. In fact, he’s gone as far as saying the only way he’ll leave before the end of his current deal is if he’s sacked.
That was supposed to be a humorous statement, intended to calm the fears of Manchester City fans who fear he could be tempted by a return to Barcelona, but there is some belief among the more paranoid of those supporters that City’s board may actually dismiss Guardiola if this season is deemed a disappointment.
The problem with the above is that there are now very few scenarios that wouldn’t constitute a disappointing season for City from the point of view of their owners. The Premier League is Liverpool’s in all but name, and that might be made official before February is over. If it is, it would be the earliest stage at which the league has been won since the old First Division became the Premier League in 1992.
The club is still in the EFL Cup, but the trophy is of so little value that whether or not they win it is immaterial. Winning the FA Cup would be pleasing, but if it arrived alone, it would likely fall below the minimum that the board expects of their team. Only by winning the Champions League trophy can Guardiola – and City as a whole – claim their season has been a success.
The idea of Guardiola being fired may seem unlikely based on his past successes, but Manchester City has form for doing exactly that with their successful managers. Roberto Mancini was memorably fired one year to the day after winning the Premier League in 2012 – the first league win of the current era at the club. Their next title arrived under the stewardship of Mancini’s successor Manuel Pellegrini in 2014.
He hung on to the job when he followed that up with a second-place finish the following season, but was then let go to allow Guardiola in – and not with much ceremony. Guardiola has now lasted longer than either of his predecessors and this season he and his players have given the worrying impression of a team in decline.
Many tears were shed when legendary captain Victor Kompany left the club at the end of last season. There was no doubt that his best years were behind him as a player, but there was an expectation that a major new defensive signing would be made to replace him. No such signing was made.
For all of their obvious strengths – by way of which they remain leaps and bounds ahead of every other Premier League club aside from Liverpool – City’s players are showing signs of age. Fernandinho has just been awarded another contract, despite being in his mid-30s. David Silva is in his final season at the club. Sergio Aguero, City’s greatest-ever striker, is now in his 30s too.
The situation could be read as one in which Guardiola is guilty of not replacing players when they’ve needed to be replaced and failing to plan for the future.
Is it likely that City will win the Champions League, then? That’s very difficult to say. Trying to predict the outcome of any football game is no more reliable than predicting the suit of the next card to be turned from a pack. Trying to predict Champions League results is more akin to trying to predict the next spin of the reels on slot games.
You’d certainly have made a profit worthy of an online slots jackpot if you’d bet on Ajax’s unlikely run to the semi-finals last season, and an even larger one if you’d backed Liverpool to overturn a 3-0 deficit against Barcelona. In terms of probability, we’d probably feel safer placing a wager on Manchester City to win the tournament than betting the same amount of money on an online slots website, but not by much.
The city’s route to the final won’t be an easy one. They already have to overcome Real Madrid in the Round of 16, although this Madrid team is weaker than any Madrid side in recent memory, just as Barcelona appears to be a shadow of the side they were last season.
City’s biggest obstacles to picking up the trophy probably don’t come from Spain – they’ll either be Italy’s Juventus, France’s Paris Saint Germain, or from their home country in the familiar shape of Liverpool. Of all of them, Liverpool may be the bigger problem. The Anfield side seems unstoppable on every front this season and will have every intention of retaining the trophy they fought so hard to win last year.
Only those who hold positions of authority at Manchester City know whether Pep Guardiola’s job is really on the line or not. It may be that he wins nothing this season and keeps his job anyway. It could even be that he wins the Champions League, and the board thinks that it makes for an excellent achievement for him to sign off with.
The city’s stuttering form in the league is easily understood if we accept it as part and parcel of the psychological impact of knowing their league title is lost. If anything, that should give them more desire to lift European club football’s biggest trophy than ever before – so if they don’t do it, what then?
The legacy of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City is bulletproof and will last forever. Whether the man himself is in quite such an untouchable position is something we’ll find out in May.