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Pep Guardiola is breaking boundaries - Champions League glory with Man City may be his greatest achievement

James Robson
·5-min read

Pep Guardiola stands on the brink of absolute greatness after leading Manchester City to their first Champions League final.

If that sounds like an odd way to describe a manager who has dominated every country in which he has worked and twice conquered Europe, it is because this is the competition that remains a stick to beat him with.

Never has Guardiola managed to win it without Lionel Messi. Never without Barcelona.

Now he is 90 minutes from changing all of that after 2-0 win against Paris Saint-Germain and an overall 4-1 aggregate victory.

Just one match away from silencing his remaining critics.

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

The Champions League is where he made his name – but also where his body of work has been found wanting.

When you operate at his exalted level, failure to win European football’s greatest prize can simply be interpreted as failure – as harsh as that may be.

Guardiola took over a Bayern Munich side that had just lifted the trophy for the fifth time, yet never managed to take them beyond a semi-final.

At City it has been even worse, failing to get even that far before this season.

Never mind the 14 major trophies – and counting - won with those sides, he will always be judged on this stage. And if City can get the job done in Istanbul later this month against Chelsea or Real Madrid, it may be his greatest-ever achievement.

Because Guardiola is breaking new boundaries at City.

Domestically he is doing what only Sir Alex Ferguson has managed in the Premier League era by dominating over an extended period of time with a team he has had to assemble, dismantle and re-assemble.

After back-to-back titles he has faced down the challenge of Liverpool and is on the verge of a third in four years without the departed Vincent Kompany and David Silva – and the diminishing forces of Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho.

He has rebuilt his team around the imperious Ruben Dias and home-grown hero Phil Foden.

To transfer domestic superiority to Europe takes him to yet new heights.

Should he fail in Turkey then the predictable questions will be asked - justifiably - but in reaching the final he has broken through a mental barrier that has acted like straight-jacket for City.

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

In PSG they have seen off stellar opposition, overcoming moments that would have previously seen them go into meltdown.

That is where Guardiola’s brilliance came to the fore.

Their place in the final was secured here at the Etihad – but it was in Paris where the foundations for this victory were put in place.

More specifically at half-time at the Parc des Princes when City managed to escape a first half hiding to trail by just a goal.

Guardiola encouraged them to be braver on the ball, to trust in the ability that has made them English football’s pre-eminent force.

What followed was a defining 45 minutes that gave them a crucial 2-1 advantage going into the second leg – but proved beyond doubt that they had PSG’s number.

Their control in that second half was a demonstration of their superiority that had both sides heading into the return fixture knowing this was City’s tie to lose.

It was all set up for a glorious night for Guardiola, but we have been here before – particularly on this stage.

City have underwhelmed on too many occasions in Europe for anyone associated with the club to feel entirely comfortable with their advantage.

Meltdowns against Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham and Lyon represented a worrying pattern. But that second half performance in Paris pointed to a newfound maturity.

And PSG’s own flakiness could not be discounted.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Perhaps that was in the minds of the ‘welcoming committee’ of supporters who congregated outside the Eithad as the French side’s bus arrived.

As if the flares and chants were not enough of an intimidation, a sleet and snow storm in May was a most Manchester of greetings.

The absence of Kylian Mbappe from PSG’s starting line-up only strengthened the belief that Mauricio Pochettino’s side were there for the taking.

Still, City needed to prove to themselves more than anyone else that they could get through nights like this.

When Bjorn Kuipers pointed to the spot inside the first 10 minutes for a handball from Oleksandr Zinchenko it felt like history repeating.

VAR rightly corrected that decision and it proved to be the turning point for both teams after City had weathered an early PSG storm.

Riyad Mahrez opened the scoring after 11 minutes – and while Marquinhos hit the bar and Angel di Maria was inches away from capitalising on an Ederson mistake, confidence oozed from City’s players.

Getty Images
Getty Images

So much so that they were happy to cede possession to PSG, who had nearly 56 percent of the ball, content in the knowledge they could hurt them on the counter.

That is precisely how they put the game beyond doubt, with Kevin de Bruyne and Phil Foden combining with wonderful precision to set up Mahrez for his second just after the hour.

The only meltdown from there-on in was from the French side. Di Maria was sent off for kicking out at Fernandinho and Marco Verratti was within a whisker of joining him.

For Pochettino there was to be no repeat of that heady night in 2019 when Tottenham saw off City in the quarter-final.

Now it is the Argentine who will face uncomfortable questions about his pedigree at the highest level.

PSG fans will need no reminding that Thomas Tuchel stands on the brink of leading Chelsea to the final after doing likewise with the French giants last season.

As for Guardiola, he has turned his nose up at criticism of his European record – sarcastically dismissing any question of failure to add to his triumphs with Barca.

But he will know better than anyone the importance that this night and going on to lift the trophy on May 29 will have on his legacy.

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