BEVERLY HILLS, May 05, (THEWILL) – Pep Guardiola has done it and taken another side of his to the within touching distance of the summit of European football for the first time in 10 years for him but for the first time for his current team even against insurmountable odds and against a side with one of the new contenders for best player in the world: Kylian Mbappe.
But, on a blustery cold night, the type of nights the French striker Mbappe loved to show off the full range of his goal-scoring talents and take teams to the cleaners, the 22-year-old sat on the reserves bench, unable to make the Ligue 1 Paris Saint-Germain team for the second leg of their semi-final fixture against eventual winners Manchester City, at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester.
Mbappe had previously shown a proclivity to excel in the chill as he demonstrated stone-cold nerves to stun La Liga bigwigs Barcelona with a hattrick at the last-16 stage before netting a brace in the blustery, snowy conditions in Munich to help PSG edge the exhilarating clash against Bayern 3-2, which helped Mauricio Pochettino’s side knock off the current holders.
But just as the absence of Bayern’s goal-scoring machine Robert Lewandowski in that tie (to balance the odds over both legs) allowed PSG successfully scale past them, Mbappe’s niggling calf injury meant he was not considered fit enough for the stern test of the return leg after being stoutly contained in the home tie. It goes without saying how much his threat was missed in the attack lineup.
Yet, it takes nothing from the absolutely incredible display that Guardiola’s charges put up over the two legs. If picking out a standout player in the away tie in Paris was an onerous chore because of how sturdy the entire team played, it was even more difficult on Tuesday for the same reason. They completely played their hearts out to advance to their debut UCL final at PSG’s expense, 2-0 at home and 4-1 on aggregate.
It was sweet progress for their Spanish boss Guardiola, a decade after years of quarter-final heartbreaks, most recently with City but also at the German giants Bayern, as well. All these ten years, and he can celebrate with the Cityzens for finally making history and changing the course of their club’s destiny. And, they will go to the final against either of fellow English Premier League side Chelsea or Guardiola’s old rivals from La Liga, Real Madrid.
The club, under Guardiola’s tactical shepherding, has become EPL staple for title contention every season. But try as they did, the strings of successes at the domestic level did not reflect in Europe. Apart from an exit in the last 16 stage, in Guardiola’s first competition with City in the 2016/2017 season, they found it impossible reaching the Last Eight in the three seasons that followed, as they could not break their quarter-final duck in between 2017 and 2020.
Now, with their seventh straight UCL win, a record for an English club in the competition, it will be foolhardy to bet against Guardiola’s charges going as far as clinching their first UCL trophy. The outstanding run in Europe is an illustration of the tremendous season they have had across all competitions in this campaign.
Until recently, the men from the Etihad were in line for an unprecedented quadruple until a semi-final loss against Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea in the FA Cup Competition. They have already taken the EFL Carabao Cup after beating north London club Tottenham Hotspur last month. They are one successful match away from being confirmed Premier League champions, as well.
All these boil down to the manner of team leadership and experience that Guardiola continues to build into the very framework of his team, as he has equally given evidence to in the teams he has managed over the years. The man himself said, in answer to those who never stop claiming that he is successful because of the financial muscle behind the team, that it takes years of hard work, and some failures, for results like these to come about.
Those are the hallmarks of champions, to learn as much from adversity as from the steps that lead to success and it belongs to a consummate tactician like Guardiola to bring this lesson home to his players and inspire them to perform as a unit, without the standout difference an out-and-out striker can make in the side.
In a sour fallout to the fixture, the visitors found cause to take up issues against the match referee, Bjorn Kupiers, whom they accused of having used vulgar language in response to their complaints. Their complaints will have to be considered for an investigation after UEFA goes through reports from the referee and the match delegate.
But that will not bother City, who celebrate their first ever UCL final since the competition was founded in 1955, and rebranded in 1992. That final takes place at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul, Turkey on May 29 and City’s challenger for the trophy will be settled on Wednesday when Chelsea and Real lock horns at Stamford Bridge.
But with what Guardiola has been able to accomplish with his team this season, the defensive telepathic connection between Ruben Dias and John Stones that keeps the goal clean, the effectiveness of Ederson Moraes as a keeper and part of the advance team, the midfield-to-attack talent of Kevin De Bruyne, who has been their linchpin and false nine, the clinical form of Riyad Mahrez and the linkup play of Phil Foden.
They play as a composite unit rather than depend on the individuality of any of these standout players. And that is why, in the absence of a real striker and seven straight victories on the bounce, all these factors combine to make City, the team to beat and most likely to win the UCL this season.