After the news on Monday of 101 Premier League charges against Manchester City, the perennial chestnut put to Pep Guardiola in any pre-Champions League match media conference may be adjusted.
Usually the manager faces a permutation of: “Pep, how important is it to win it with City?” Or: “Does it matter if you never win it with City?” Now, inquisitors may ask: “Is this your last chance to win it with City?” Because the charges relate to alleged financial irregularities, and if any are found true by the independent commission that will consider them the club’s genius manager should walk away.
We know because Guardiola is on record, last May, saying so. Defending City’s financial operations the manager relayed his conversation with the executive about this: “I said to them: ‘If you lie to me, the day after I am not here. I will be out and I will not be your friend any more.’”
A guilty verdict against City – who deny wrongdoing – would not necessarily mean Guardiola has been lied to but the Catalan’s stance has been emphatic. His challenge is to harness the jeopardy of this season’s Champions League being, potentially, a last for him at City as fuel to break a hoodoo that, when Real Madrid knocked the team out of last year’s semi-final, made it six failures from six attempts since taking over in summer 2016.
These have involved a peculiar mix of the manager out-thinking himself tactically, odd selection choices and downbeat public utterances. The last of these was the tale of the 6-6 aggregate loss on away goals to Monaco in March 2017, Guardiola’s opening attempt at ending what was then a six-year wait since the second of his two Champions League triumphs as Barcelona’s manager.
Arriving at Stade Louis-II holding a 5-3 lead from the last-16 first leg, Guardiola had been oddly negative about City’s hopes of progressing, saying they would be “killed” if they did not score. Monaco had pierced them three times at home but it still felt strange to hear how a two-goal advantage was not enough and, when City were dismal in the principality losing 3-1, even stranger.
A year later City’s campaign was all but destroyed in a 19-minute, three-goal first-half Liverpool rampage at Anfield, as Guardiola’s folly this time included the fielding of Ilkay Gündogan in a novel left-sided berth. This came in a quarter-final first leg which ended 3-0 to Jürgen Klopp’s men, who won the return too.
Fast-forward to April 2019 and Guardiola dropped his best player, Kevin De Bruyne, (and a clanger) for the opening leg of the same stage at Tottenham. City lost 1-0, meaning no away goal, and so their 4-3 victory in the return was not enough.
City reached the 2020 pandemic-hit edition’s one-off quarter-finals, staged in Porto. Against Lyon, Guardiola decided on a head-scratching 3-4-2-1 that featured the underwhelming Eric García at centre-back, despite the manager revealing the week before that the Spaniard had rejected a new contract (he joined Barcelona the following summer). Out City went, 3-1 – Guardiola switched to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 during the tie but it was too late.
City were back in Porto for the 2021 final (the club’s first). Guardiola’s wrong moves against Chelsea featured the exclusions of Rodri and Fernandinho, meaning no defensive midfielder, which was close to unheard of, and João Cancelo being dropped at left-back and his replacement, Oleksandr Zinchenko, getting caught out when Kai Havertz scored the winner.
Last year an epic 4-3 win in the semi-final first leg against Real Madrid was the taster for a farcical City loss and elimination in the return at the Bernabéu. City were 1-0 up, 5-3 overall, in the 90th minute. Cue two difficult-to-take-in Rodrygo goals, extra time and Karim Benzema scoring the winner. Guardiola and his side had managed, somehow, to match the bitter disappointment of the Chelsea reverse 12 months before.
It provoked yet another inquisition into Guardiola. Now, before City face Leipzig this month at the start of his seventh knockout phase piloting City, he can expect questions to ascertain whether his hopes of finally shutting up the critics are in the last-chance saloon because of potential guilty verdicts from the Premier League charges.
Guardiola may show the straightest of straight bats. So, a follow-up line might concern how his players are handling a scenario that could seismically impact their CVs, status and profile. Guardiola, De Bruyne, Ederson, Kyle Walker, Jack Grealish et al may be unable to stop repeated private run-throughs of the “what-ifs”.
What if we lose points? What if these are backdated? What if we lose titles if points are backdated? What if we are expelled from the Premier League? If the last two seem doomsday scenarios then this is because we are in uncharted territory, in arguably the Premier League’s biggest-ever story.
Guardiola will, then, surely have to address his squad about how to prevent City’s season from derailing. Before kicking off at Red Bull Arena on 22 February they have Premier League outings against Aston Villa, Arsenal and Nottingham Forest. On Sunday they lost at Tottenham, which was no surprise given that City are still this term to be the force of previous seasons.
If performances and results dip, Guardiola and his men will arrive in Germany under even greater scrutiny. He is a manager hoping to finally land the Champions League for the club who thought they had hired a sure thing to do so. The charges against City may make this quest even tougher. And it may be his final opportunity.