Pep Guardiola was making his usual eye-brow raising statements when he recently claimed he won’t lose sleep if his Manchester City reign ends without a “nice” Champions League triumph.
His actions seemed to have betrayed his words though.
Dropping to his knees when Raheem Sterling stepped off the bench and finally provided a breakthrough in his side’s 2-0 win against Dinamo Zagreb, served as ample evidence of what it means to him.
This is the competition that defines him, the stage on which his legend was created. While his place in the high regards of City’s history is already secured after making English football dance to his tune, his record in Europe will forever be a blot if he fails to deliver the Etihad’s very first Champions League trophy.
And the more Guardiola says he’s not obsessed with the competition, the less convincing he sounds.
Guardiola is Guardiola because of the Champions League. Be it as a player when he was part of the very first Barcelona team to be crowned kings of Europe – or as a manager where his Lionel Messi-inspired Barca set a new benchmark in club football.
When he talks of the need to seduce City fans, who are still to take the competition to their hearts, it comes from his own love affair with it. Guardiola is a different animal when European football comes around. There is a tension rarely seen at a domestic level. Over-thinking, uncharacteristic mistakes. These are not the actions of a man who isn’t feeling the pressure. Take last season’s quarter-final first leg against Tottenham, for example.
Has Guardiola ever set up a City side in such a negative fashion?
And their failure to score an away goal ultimately cost them when Spurs netted three at the Etihad. It is five months since that drama-filled second leg at the Etihad. A nerve-shredding clash that should have had enough drama to convert even the most disbelieving City fan to the power of European club football’s biggest prize. Had Sterling’s injury-time goal not been ruled out by VAR, maybe it would have been a different story.
This, their first European home tie since that unforgettable night was never going to match it for status – but Dinamo provided a reminder of the challenges City will face going forward.
Guardiola might choose to deny it but the Champions League means so much to him – even at Manchester City. And while he may not think so but the whole world realize that already and it’s why clubs up their game against City in the Champions League.
Who knows where Croatian champions would finish in the Premier League, but they proved more stubborn opponents than many of City’s domestic rivals. It wasn’t until the brilliant Sterling entered the action after 56 minutes that the home side finally found their cutting edge.
It doesn’t matter what the competition is for Sterling – he simply delivers every time. He finished off a stunning move involving Rodri and Riyad Mahrez after only 10 minutes on the pitch.
Guardiola then showed us once again why “he won’t lose sleep” in the Champions League when he earned a yellow card after Sterling was denied a penalty going down under the challenge of Petar Stojanovic. One scenario we’ve seen far too many times.
In between, Aguero should have had at least one – and City’s dominance was in no way reflected by the scoreline. On another night they may have been made to pay for their wastefulness on one of Dinamo’s rare breaks up the pitch. But the message was loud and clear – the Champions League does mean a lot to Guardiola and his City side.