It is the task that awaits Copenhagen now. Perhaps it will be the challenge for one or more of the European giants – Bayern Munich or Barcelona, Real Madrid or Internazionale, Paris Saint-Germain or Arsenal – in a quarter-final, a semi-final or a final. How do you stop Pep Guardiola from retaining the Champions League? Because so far in his career, it has taken a volcano and a footballing miracle.
For much of the last seven years, the focus was on whether and when Guardiola could secure Manchester City’s first Champions League and how, amid a series of disappointments, his infamous overthinking contributed to their inability to do so. Yet put Guardiola in the position of defending champion and it has required the remarkable to halt him. In the years after his two previous European glories, he was not undone by his own errors as much as by greater forces.
A question now is if City will prove an era-defining team in Europe; it is beyond doubt that Guardiola’s Barcelona were. They are sometimes described as the finest club side ever, often ranked as the most influential and impressive since Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan. And yet the only team to record back-to-back Champions Leagues in the years since the Milan team of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten were Real Madrid, in 2016, 2017 and 2018: lacking the philosophy of Guardiola’s Barcelona, less dominant domestically but with the pragmatism, the ability to seize the moment and the goalscorers, particularly Cristiano Ronaldo, to prevail in high-stakes knockout games.
It is, though, easy to imagine a world where Guardiola’s Barcelona were four-time champions; certainly they were good enough to be. But in 2010, an Icelandic volcano acquired an infamy in Catalonia; the eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull meant that, with air travel impossible, Guardiola’s side made a 14-hour coach journey to Milan for the first leg of the semi-final with Inter. Barcelona lost a mere four games that season and only one by more than one goal: 3-1 to Inter. The second leg provided the greatest triumph of Jose Mourinho against Guardiola – though 14 years on, he won the battle but lost the war – as, down to 10 men, happy to give the ball away, Inter defended heroically.
There was a strange common denominator in the second-leg heartbreak at the same stage two years later: once again Barcelona, the side who could scythe through 11 men, found themselves frustrated by 10. That Chelsea were shorn of the sent-off John Terry and managed by a caretaker, in Roberto Di Matteo, rendered it all the more ludicrous. With Jose Bosingwa operating an auxiliary centre-back, they rallied from 2-0 down, the makeshift right-back Ramires scoring their first goal, Lionel Messi missing a penalty in a season when he got 73 goals, the much-mocked Fernando Torres finishing Barcelona off in injury-time. Chelsea completed a mere 117 passes at the Nou Camp but prevailed anyway. Guardiola subsequently admitted that semi-final persuaded him he could no longer motivate his team; it nevertheless took a freakish combination of events to knock them out.
Fast forward 14 years and circumstances would seem to favour City. They drew the team with the smallest budget and the least European pedigree in the last 16: because of their winter break FC Copenhagen have not played for two months.
Look at the broader picture and there may not be another outstanding European team. Bayern have looked less than the sum of their parts this season. Barcelona have had a troubled season, while their financial problems have rendered them less of a force in the transfer market. Napoli have regressed alarmingly since their stirring Scudetto. PSG are serial underachievers in the knockout stages. Inter have been terrific in Italy but could pay a price for failing to win their Champions League group. City’s sometime nemeses Liverpool are not in the competition. If anyone stops Guardiola and co, Real Madrid may be the logical candidates, yet they were demolished 4-0 at the Etihad Stadium last season and, since Karim Benzema’s departure, do not have a frontline centre-forward.
If the years since 2008 feel like a time shaped by Guardiola, the fact remains that he has won three Champions Leagues in that period; so have Barcelona. Real, meanwhile, have five already. For much of the last seven years, Guardiola used City’s lack of Champions League titles to argue that they were at a disadvantage, that an institutional winning mentality would aid the established order, as though a muscle memory from the 1950s will kick in.
But now City are defending champions and favourites. It is harder to shift the burden of expectation on to others, to portray themselves as underdogs. Guardiola is entitled to argue that, on the two previous occasions his sides occupied this status, they did not win the Champions League. But it took something astonishing to ensure that.