On Saturday night in Istanbul, as the referee blew the full time whistle, Manchester City players burst into a wild celebration. Why wouldn’t they! The team that was always considered the ‘second’ club of Manchester had just emulated their big brothers, becoming the first English club since Manchester United in 1999 to win the treble– The Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League.
As the players celebrated on the field and the thousands of City fans rejoiced in the stands, the man behind all of it, the mastermind of the club, the ‘genius’ coach Pep Guardiola looked a bit subdued.
He didn’t run to his players after the final whistle like the substitutes and other coaches. He wasn’t jumping up and down in elation nor was he in any rush to join the celebration.
As the camera panned to Guardiola, which it had done multiple times during the match when he was pacing to and fro in the technical area restlessly, shouting instructions to his players and looking animated whenever his team survived a close call. But this time, the camera captured a look relieved, who looked at piece.
Guardiola had just accomplished something he had been trying to achieve for years. And after getting the job done, he was seemingly overcome with an overwhelming sense of relief.
Winning the Champions League is not something new for Guardiola, he had done it twice before with Barcelona. But for many reasons, the Champions League triumph with Manchester City is extra special.
In the seven years since joining Manchester City, Guardiola has helped the club win every title there is to win in England.
Under Guardiola, Manchester City have won five Premier League titles, including a hattrick of title wins. They have also won the FA Cup twice, the League Cup four times and the Community Shield twice.
Guardiola has also given the side a unique identity on the field, something its previous coaches had failed to do. The Spaniard is one of the biggest football philosophers in modern football and is also, perhaps, the best tactician in the game.
Still, his success in Manchester City and his achievements at Barcelona and Bayern Munich are sometimes looked down upon by naysayers, who claim that Guardiola benefited from having great teams at his disposals and had little to do with his teams’ achievements.
At Barcelona, Guardiola won 14 titles in just four seasons with the club. But he had the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets etc at his disposal, and his critics were quick to say that with such a collection of players, any coach could find success.
He then went to the German giants Bayern Munich where he completed a hat-trick of Bundesliga wins. But once again, the detractors talked about the dearth of European titles in those three years for Bayern, and claimed Guardiola’s time at Bayern was a failure.
After that, Guardiola arrived at Manchester City, a club which had tremendous financial backing since the Abu Dhabi United Group took over in 2008, but had only one Premier League title and an FA Cup win to show for.
It took Guardiola one season to size up the league and to build his team. After that, began the domination of Manchester City. Clubs like Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal gave them competition, with Liverpool managing to win one Premier League title in between Man City’s reign of excellence. But overall Manchester City were undoubtedly the superior team in England.
The way Guardiola transformed a formidable team into a near unbeatable one was incredible. But the critics were quick to point out the massive financing behind the club, implying that it was the money that won Manchester City the trophies, not Guardiola.
But they forgot a famous quote made by Guardiola’s mentor, Barcelona’s Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, “I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.”
Guardiola did have a lot of money at his disposal to go for the players he wanted to, but he wasn’t the only one. The other English giants have also spent exuberant amount of money in this period. Still, they failed to match up with Manchester City.
Guardiola knew the only way to shut the mouths of critics is to do the one trophy Manchester City, a club that has been around since 1880, had never done. Win the Champions League.
Guardiola is also well aware that his time with Manchester City will be judged by his success in the Champions League, “It doesn’t mean I agree with that but absolutely we will be judged by this competition,” Guardiola told the media at a press conference.
He came close in 2021, but fellow English club Chelsea broke City hearts by winning the final 1-0. In 2022, Real Madrid crushed Manchester City’s dreams with a stunning come from behind victory in the semifinal.
City played the 2021-22 season without an outright striker. They filled up that gap by bringing in one of the hottest prospects in world football, Erling Haaland.
Haaland proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle for Manchester City as the Norwegian scored 51 goals in 52 matches and was instrumental in Manchester City’s treble.
However, on the most pivotal match, the Champions League final, Haaland looked off colour. The team’s midfield maestro Kevin de Bruyne was also forced to leave the field injured in the first half.
To make things worse, the entire City defensive line looked nervous in the first half. At one point, after another close call, Guardiola was seen shouting, “Relax! Relax!” at his defenders.
Just before the City players came out for the second half, Guardiola had one last huddle with his players in the tunnel. The cameras couldn’t pick up what he said. But whatever it was, it did the trick as City started playing organised football, which fans of the Premier League are accustomed to seeing on a weekly basis.
The sustained pressure did the trick as in the 68th minute as Rodri found himself in the d-box with enough space to unleash a fierce right footed strike that sent the ball flying into the Inter Milan net.
Milan fought back in the remaining minutes, getting close to equalising on multiple occasions. But a mix of good defending, courageous goalkeeping and sheer luck helped Manchester City keep a clean sheet and win their maiden Champions League.
After the initial delay, Guardiola did join his players in celebration, giving tight embraces to his pupils, with his eyes glistening with built up tears of joy.
As captain Ilkay Gundogan brought the trophy to the podium and lifted it amongst his teammates for the first time, the fireworks went off and the players celebrated being the champions of Europe.
Guardiola, however, wasn't as expressive in his celebration. He was clearly happy, but unlike his player he wasn’t celebrating a championship victory, he was experiencing the relief of finally fulfiling a promise.