Champions League or bust for Guardiola: Man City manager's legacy on the line against Madrid

Pep Guardiola
Man City dominated two seasons of English football, but time is running out for them to deliver in Europe, especially with the threat of a ban looming

It says everything about Pep Guardiola's status within the game that if he doesn't win the Champions League during his time at Manchester City it will be considered a failure.

Zinedine Zidane led Real Madrid to three consecutive European Cups between 2016 and 2018 yet still described the Catalan as "the best" coach in the world ahead of their last-16 clash at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday.

It is a common view among the game's top tacticians.

Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool have left City trailing in their wake in this season's Premier League and yet, in December, he also labelled Guardiola as "the best manager in the world".

But such lofty praise from his peers will not be enough to silence Guardiola's critics. Nor will two record-breaking title-winning seasons. Or a domestic treble. Or that he has redefined English football.

Guardiola was brought to the Etihad Stadium to win Europe's biggest prize. The fact that he has yet to lead City past the quarter-finals is, therefore, portrayed as a massive letdown.

It has also supposedly strengthened the argument that Guardiola can't win the Champions League without Lionel Messi.

They won two titles together, in 2009 and 2011, but while the Argentine attacker got his hands on the trophy again in 2015, Guardiola's drought has now entered its ninth year.

There were already question marks after Guardiola failed to turn domestic domination into European glory with Bayern Munich and he knows that he will face further criticism if he doesn't deliver in England either.

Guardiola claimed he would be sacked if he didn't win the trophy but it is inconceivable that the club would consider taking such drastic action any time soon.

He has transformed the club into serial winners and while Europe has been a disappointment, it is a cup competition and luck is needed. The City boss believes that a league victory is a truer test of a team's greatness as it rewards consistent excellence.

Fortune is a major factor in the Champions League and there's no doubt that some close calls have gone against Guardiola's City in continental competition.

They had a goal ruled out while attempting to storm back from a 3-0 first-leg deficit in their quarter-final clash with Liverpool two years ago. It was a dreadful decision but an irate Guardiola was sent off for protesting.

Pep Guardiola Benjamin Mendy Manchester City 2019-20

Last year, meanwhile, VAR did nothing when Fernando Llorente bundled the ball home with his hand in a controversial last-eight clash at the Etihad yet intervened when Raheem Sterling thought he had scored the winning goal because of a marginal offside in the build-up.

"Many things have happened in recent years but it’s football," Guardiola said ahead of the game against Madrid. "I remember incredible episodes but we cannot control it.

"I don’t like to win with the wrong decisions, but the referee, VAR, things have happened... but we just have to do what we have to do."

With just 15 months remaining on his current City contract, Guardiola is running out of time if he is to win the trophy the club's hierarchy want more than any other. But recent events have ramped up the pressure.

Indeed, this might be Guardiola's last chance.

While he has confirmed he will be at the club next season, City won't be in Europe, unless the Court of Arbitration of Sport overturns the club's two-year ban for breaching Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.

While the club insist they have irrefutable evidence to win their appeal, as it stands, Guardiola's City legacy is now on the line ahead of their meeting with Madrid.

However, the former Barcelona midfielder is playing down the significance of the game for him personally.

"These players will have a lot of chances [to win the Champions League]," Guardiola insisted. "I know we are playing the kings (Real Madrid) but unless you die, there will be more chances. There will be other opportunities.

"So, the ban adds no special motivation. The desire should always be there anyway. It’s another game – that’s all."

Guardiola has said that the reason for City's poor showing has been their lack of European pedigree.

Madrid love the Champions League and know how to get the job done without playing well, while City have struggled when the European giants have arrived in town.

Barcelona, twice, Madrid and Liverpool have all knocked them out of the latter stages of the competition.

But the City boss has also faced some criticism for changing his strategy. His high-risk attacking football has often proven too much for England's mid-level sides but sometimes in continental competition he has changed tactics against sides of similar quality.

Against Liverpool two years ago, he played Aymeric Laporte as a more defensive left-back to try to stop the flying Mohamed Salah and played with an extra midfielder. He did something similar with Fabian Delph against Spurs. Both decisions backfired.

Even Thomas Muller recently claimed that sometimes Guardiola used to change his tactics too much against stronger sides.

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"If the players felt that, if Thomas felt that, it’s good information," Guardiola mused. "Maybe it's my mistake but I try to make them confident and get them to go out to try to play their own game."

One thing is for sure: Guardiola will need to get his tactics spot on if City are to eliminate Real.

If he doesn't, the critics will be quick to herald the end of his Etihad tenure – and label it a failure.