Even by the standards of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, it was a stunning display of strength. There were a few of them here at the club’s training ground on Tuesday as the manager looked ahead to the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid on Wednesday night – one of the most monumental occasions in City’s history.
As he had done before the first leg at the Bernabéu last Tuesday, which finished 1-1, Guardiola had no problem in admitting his bosses – the top brass from Abu Dhabi – craved a first Champions League success. It has been a subtle change of tone and his articulation of it seems to come from a place of confidence.
Pre-match tension? You did not feel it in Guardiola, despite a bit of his usual fidgeting. He was a snapshot in easy cool, self-awareness, too. “I’m not overthinking it, don’t worry guys,” he said with a smile.
Guardiola wants his team to play what is in front of them, to be themselves, not to fret about what has happened in the past, the agonising knockout-phase losses. Hence the line about his legacy being “exceptional already”. Guardiola blew out his cheeks. “At home, we feel … wow,” he said. “Full of belief.”
But if we needed action to go with the words, then the guy who occupied the press conference stage before him had a story to tell; an illuminating one. Kyle Walker was trucking along nicely until the home win against Newcastle on 4 March, after which he went out and about in town and everything unravelled.
Walker’s shame has been well documented; the story about the CCTV footage that appeared to show him exposing himself in a bar, the subsequent out-of-court disposal – the way police resolve a low-level crime where the offender is known and has admitted to the offence.
Guardiola cold-shouldered Walker until the middle of April, starting him once in six games – the FA Cup tie against Burnley. He left him as an unused substitute in the biggest matches during the run – the Champions League last‑16 second leg against RB Leipzig, the league match with Liverpool and the quarter-final first leg against Bayern Munich.
Was Guardiola punishing Walker for his off-field behaviour? He has not said. But what he did say on 8 April might have been more wounding. Guardiola had preferred to play a centre-half out of position over Walker at right‑back, mainly John Stones, asking him to step up and across into midfield. He explained that it was because Walker lacked the tactical intelligence to do so, the “educated movements”. Ouch.
Guardiola had already moved on one full-back – João Cancelo to Bayern in January – albeit he tended to use him on the left. Now he discarded undisputedly England’s No 1 right-back, whom he had counted on for years. Does any other club manager in Europe have the range of options to act like this? Or the chutzpah?
It looked over for Walker at City. The team, though, did not miss a beat. They continued to win. This is the machine into which Madrid have run, the one eyeing more than Champions League glory. City are on for the treble and it has come to feel as if everybody expects them to complete it. They are normalising the ridiculous.
Even better for Guardiola has been Walker’s form after regaining his place. He has barely missed a beat and was exceptional – to borrow his manager’s description – in the first leg against Madrid; against the danger man, Vinícius Júnior. It is the duel that could shape the return.
Everyone seemingly has emerged from the episode in better shape: Guardiola, Walker, City as a collective. They are ready for the defining moments.
“Sometimes, certain opinions in football … you don’t always agree with,” Walker said. “Did it hurt? Of course it did. I can’t sit here and lie to you and say it didn’t hurt. You start to doubt yourself but you have to go back to basics … to prove him wrong and that is what I have done.”
Walker v Vinícius has been built up in a similar way to Walker v Kylian Mbappé before the World Cup quarter-final between England and France last December. England lost but Walker conceded nothing in the duel. At the age of 32, he has lost none of his pace and he revealed he had been clocked “the other day by one of the lads in sports science” at 37.5km/h.
Guardiola feels his team must be better than they were in the first leg; they need to be more creative, get balls into Erling Haaland, show greater cohesion. But he will demand more of the same from Walker, whose embrace with Vinícius after the game was one of the abiding images.
“I went to hug him because he tried to rainbow flick me, so it was kind of like: ‘Please don’t try that again – I don’t want to be a meme,’” Walker said. “Boxers fight and then they shake hands after. That is the level of respect I have for him. I will give him the respect [after the final whistle] but before then it is dog eat dog.”
Walker talked about how City had grown from the Champions League exits of the past, mentioning the heartbreaker against Tottenham in 2019. He also said that the team had walked a fine line in the league this season; one more bad result after the draw at Nottingham Forest on 18 February and it “could have been all over”. Instead, they have won 11 games in a row, a fifth title in six years now a formality.
“We seem to kick on at the business end,” Walker said. “We were having a joke with Ilkay Gündogan yesterday – he turns into prime Zidane in the last couple of months. These players are born winners.”
They just have to show it against Madrid.