Spurs and Manchester City meet in unusual circumstances and with Pep Guardiola increasingly mindful of the possible effects on his City legacy of failing to win the Champions League.
Maybe it’s because we are older,” was Pep Guardiola’s response when asked why his rivalry with José Mourinho never reached the heights in this country that were achieved in Spain. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
The pair meet again at Tottenham on Sunday afternoon, with something in common. Neither has a chance of winning the Premier League, unusually given what Spurs and Manchester City have accomplished in recent seasons, and both will be hoping to make some progress in Europe this month to make up for the fact their expected challenge to Liverpool never really materialised.
Mourinho has the ready-made excuse that he arrived only in mid-season, when Tottenham were already underperforming, though that such a yawning gap exists between first and second in the table clearly makes painful viewing for Guardiola, especially after Liverpool ran City so close right up to the end of last season.
The Premier League at the moment looks as if it contains one outstanding team, two distant challengers and 17 also-rans, which was not the case as recently as last season. Anyone who suspects the overall standard in England may have slipped, and that Liverpool’s excellence is masking an otherwise ordinary domestic competition, will be keen to see if European matchups confirm the theory. Two English teams contested last season’s Champions League final, with Tottenham’s surprising resilience in Europe accounting for Manchester City along the way.
City successfully defended their title, by way of compensation, as well as adding the two domestic cups, but Guardiola is aware – because he was specifically targeted by his last two clubs to help improve their record in Europe – that the Champions League is the one part of his CV that needs bringing up to date. It is nine years since he last won the trophy with Barcelona and, despite stylish domestic triumphs in both Germany and England, he has not managed to reach a final since leaving Spain.
“Last year was an extraordinary one for us, yet people say: ‘But you didn’t win the Champions League,’” the City manager says. “If I don’t win it in my final period here I will be judged a failure, I know that. Obviously it is a perfect season when you win all the titles and it’s nice when you win the biggest titles but the judgment has to come at the end of the season.
“I am proud of my team, we are still competing in every single game and we are in a cup final later this month. Winning the league won’t be far away for Liverpool, they would be champions anywhere in the world but we are not close. We still have the Champions League, though, and we have to play the king of the championship, Real Madrid. They have won it 13 times and we are still waiting but we are there. We will see at the end of the season and then I will give you my opinion about whether we have been successful or not.”
Perhaps Guardiola is being a little hard on himself there. He will not universally be judged a failure if he fails to win the Champions League with his present club because he has improved City beyond measure and, by extension, forced Liverpool to raise their game to the almost frightening level of consistency we are seeing.
Even Jürgen Klopp has admitted he owes Guardiola a debt, though the German speaks with the confidence of someone who has been to the last two Champions League finals. While Guardiola is hardly short of confidence, he knows the longer the wait for a European breakthrough goes on the more he will hear of the argument that he was merely lucky to be in charge of an exceptional Barcelona team a dozen years ago and has been unable to reproduce their achievements with the champions of England and Germany because he has not had the luxury of being able to call on Lionel Messi or Andrés Iniesta.
Guardiola ought not to feel he has to succeed again in Europe just to prove these people wrong but a coach of his pedigree naturally wants to test himself against the best around and it sounds as if he views the upcoming tie against Real Madrid as the crux of City’s season. Which it may well be. But first there is the small matter of last season’s beaten finalists and a manager he knows only too well.