At the top, we need to add even more of a disclaimer than we usually do. There are far more important things in the world than this, but it’s our lot to discuss the silly and insignificant (at the time).
And when it comes to Pep Guardiola, he has already lost a lot more than whatever hit his reputation might take for failing to win the Champions League with City.
Have to be clear here:
While leagues in North America are trying to figure out when and if and how they can resume play at some point in the future, European soccer has the same problem and more. Where the NBA, NHL, and MLB are just trying to fit in some form of their normal, one-competition schedule, soccer leagues have multiple competitions to finish up. Leagues, cups, and the Champions League and Europa League. If it’s even possible.
Most countries being a couple weeks ahead of the U.S. in terms of coronavirus cycle might see them have a better chance at doing something in the summer months, but that remains to be seen. Italy and Spain, the two hardest-hit nations, aren’t even throwing out ideas of when they could possibly finish off their seasons. England has had muted proposals about closed door or biodomed finishes to their domestic season. Germany, perhaps Europe’s leading light in surviving the crisis, has reopened training for clubs along the lines of local health guidelines and is eyeing a return to game-action – behind closed doors – in early May.
With these staggered plans and so many unanswered questions, it’s impossible to guess how UEFA would even begin to think about finishing off this year’s Champions League, which has three and a half rounds to complete (17 matches). Certainly it can’t until every league is up and running in some fashion, and even then the challenges of cross-border travel and safely finding sites among differing government regulations and situations across Europe are going to make it an immense challenge.
Which makes not finishing at all the most likely scenario. Which means Manchester City’s cold and bloodless pursuit of the one trophy that has eluded them, and the one that would give them a status they have craved for years, will go on. And unlike other nouveau riche clubs in Europe, theirs could be severely hampered for years.
Before the epidemic hit, Man City’s quest for European glory already had a different sense of urgency than just about any other club. They were attempting to re-enact Marseille 1993 (winning the trophy before being booted), as hanging over them since February was their two-year suspension from European competition, thanks to some funny bookkeeping to get around UEFA’s Financial Fair Play laws (their gleeful obstruction of the investigation didn’t help much either). Man City had appealed to the Court Of Arbitration For Sport to get the suspension thrown out or reduced, and that’s still pending. It is entirely possible that they could get a reduction, as previous clubs to get rapped on the knuckles had seen a lightening of sentences there before (Chelsea, Juventus). It’s more pending as even the CAS isn’t immune from current events.
But it’s not a guarantee, and their ban being upheld could have serious effects on Man City. It is unlikely that players like Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Ederson, Rodri, Gabriel Jesus, and one or two others are going to want to spend two years in the prime of their careers not playing in the sport’s top club competition. David Silva and Leroy Sane were already headed for the exit door. That kind of mass departure would be hard to come back from, even with the planet-filling amount of money owner Sheikh Mansour has at his disposal. The fact that most of that rebuild would have to come two years down the line with no European football only makes that task even more gargantuan.
All of that leaves out what the future may hold for the architect of it all, and that’s Guardiola. It would seem patently ridiculous that Guardiola’s reputation can take any sort of besmirching at this point. His Barcelona teams were arguably the best the world has ever seen. His Munich teams garnered the second- and third-highest point totals in that illustrious club’s history (though their highest ever point total was achieved the season before he arrived, which is part of the problem here). He’s produced the two highest point-totals in Premier League history with Manchester City, one was the only team to break 100 points, and the other held off the team putting up the third-most points in league history just last season. This will be only the third season of managing that his team won’t win a league title out of 12. The man walks with gods if he never manages another day. Or he should.
Still, there are those out there who see his lack of a European Cup without Lionel Messi and the other products of La Masia, and wonder if all of this isn’t just a bit tainted. Or overstated. After all, both Munich and Man City are the richest clubs in their respective leagues, both by some distance, and league titles could be seen not so much as a rousing success as the status quo. Two other managers managed league titles with Man City in the past decade, after all.
Guardiola has also been accused of overthinking it the past couple seasons when Man City went out of the competition. He was too conservative in the first leg against Spurs last April, leaving out De Bruyne when already without Bernardo Silva, and failing to secure the away goal that would have made all the difference. He had the opposite problem in the previous season, where his exuberance was ruthlessly punished by Liverpool’s counter-attacking ways. Both Man City and Munich were prone to total collapses for short spaces of time that doomed them over two legs, even if they dominated most of the proceedings (Madrid and Barcelona both piled up the goals quickly in 2014 and 2015 against Munich, whereas Atletico just strangled the life out of them in 2016).
Munich never appeared in a final under Guardiola. Man City hasn’t even made a semifinal under his helm. A discontinuation of this season’s competition could see that streak continue for the club for years.
It seems massively unfair to Guardiola, who at the very least created the greatest sides La Liga and the Premier League have ever seen. All three of his teams have become Borg-like in the efficiency of their destruction of opponents while playing some of the most eye-catching football in history. Jose Mourinho may have won the Champions League with two different clubs and championships in four countries, Sir Alex Ferguson may have revolutionized an entire league, but neither had teams that consistently produced the art that Guardiola’s have.
But Barcelona, and perhaps more importantly, Messi, won another European Cup without Guardiola. He has yet to do the same, nor been particularly close. The vagaries of cup soccer have certainly played their part. He was a last-minute VAR offside call (and a toenail-sized offside at that) from an eminently winnable semifinal against Ajax to set up a final against a Liverpool side that failed to beat them twice last year. His last Munich side lost on away goals to Atletico.
A bounce here or a bounce there…
But lamenting a decision or bounce is what Guardiola’s sides were supposed to rise above. Their expense, their talent, their ruthlessly efficient ways were supposed to be as sure of a thing as there was. There are no other clubs this big that Pep can go to after this, as the lack of challenge domestically will likely keep him from ever taking over at PSG. What kind of label will he carry on from here?
The damage to Man City is no less hard to ascertain. While sympathy is impossible for their owners and how they came to their money, there’s always been a feeling that the rush to punish Man City or PSG has at least partially been an attempt to keep the ultra-exclusive club of European elite clubs as exclusive as possible. City and PSG, as filthy as it might be, are new money and challenge the reigns of Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus et al. Reportedly, Madrid was very much in the ear of UEFA to throw the book at City over FFP. Another year without the trophy and then two years on the sidelines with however long and whatever effects follow that will certainly keep the established glitterati safer in their seats.
No one will feel sorry for City or Pep however this shakes out. But they both stand to lose more than just about anyone else in the top rung of European football.