How Guardiola’s Man City have cracked the code to become Champions League favorites

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Istanbul is already a significant landmark in Manchester City‘s story of false dawns, near misses and an agonising wait to be crowned as champions of Europe. The Turkish city marks the start of a 55-year journey, punctuated by the brilliance of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, that might finally come to an end on Saturday in the place where it all began.

Back in 1968, as champions of England, City faced Turkish side Fenerbahce in the first round of the European Cup — renamed the UEFA Champions League in 1992 — after manager Malcolm Allison had declared that his team would “terrify the cowards of Europe.” City lost 2-1 to Fenerbahce and would not return to the Champions League for another 43 years.

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The club has not played a competitive fixture in Turkey since that game, so Saturday’s Champions League final against Inter Milan in Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium offers Pep Guardiola’s team the opportunity to go full circle and avenge all of the heartbreaks endured by the club since. For while Guardiola’s City side project the air of dominance and a sense of inevitability that they will become only the second English team to complete a Champions League-Premier League-FA Cup treble this weekend (Manchester United achieved it in 1999), they haven’t always carried such self-assurance among Europe’s elite.

If City win the Champions League on Saturday, they will have earned the right to lift the European Cup because of the hard lessons learned over the years. From the first failed mission in 1968 to the stoppage-time agony of conceding twice to Real Madrid before losing last season’s semifinal in the Santiago Bernabeu, City have their scars from this competition.

When neighbours United won the Champions League to complete the treble in 1999, they had also been on a painful journey of discovery before finally getting their hands on the trophy. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team had been taught harsh lessons by an unfancied Turkish opponent when eliminated by Galatasaray (1993-94), they struggled to match up to Marcello Lippi’s great Juventus team of Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero (1996-97), had frozen on the big stage when losing a semifinal to Borussia Dortmund (1996-97) and were beaten by an underestimated Monaco team (1997-98).

City’s tale of disappointment is similar, and even Guardiola has been unable to wave a magic wand and make it all come good, as he had been hired to do in 2016. Group stage exits under Roberto Mancini in 2011-12 and 2012-13 highlighted how far City had to go to be competitive on the biggest stage. They lost five of six away games in those two campaigns and failed to win a single game in 2012-13 — a run of results which contributed to Mancini being fired at the end of that season.

Manuel Pellegrini oversaw an improvement, taking City out of the group stage in his first two seasons, but on each occasion, a Messi-inspired Barcelona knocked them out in the round of 16. “We lost against a better team, without doubt,” Pellegrini said. “It is very difficult to beat Barcelona, especially with Messi. We all want to continue in the Champions League, but we need to improve in Europe.” The following year, City reached the semifinal for the first time, but Pellegrini’s team failed to score over the course of the two-legged tie and were eliminated 1-0 on aggregate. They kept Cristiano Ronaldo quiet but were still knocked out.

Enter Guardiola, the man with two Champions League titles to his name with Barcelona in 2009 and 2011. He had been unable to repeat that success during three seasons with Bayern Munich, but nonetheless, City’s Abu Dhabi owners regarded him as the coach who would eventually deliver Champions League glory to the Etihad.

But it has not been quite so simple. Seven years on, Guardiola has endured the same disappointments and shortcomings that derailed his predecessors.

Off the pitch, City have also had to contend with battles with UEFA. In 2014, the club was fined £49 million and forced to comply with squad restrictions and limits on transfer spending and wages for two years for noncompliance with financial fair play (FFP) regulations. City were reimbursed two-thirds of that fine (£33.4m) in 2017 for complying with UEFA’s sanctions.

City were still emerging from the two-year period of limitations when Guardiola took charge in July 2016 and there would be more UEFA turbulence to come in 2020, when a two-year ban from all European competitions for serious breaches of FFP rules was overturned on appeal later that year. But while the City hierarchy and the club’s legal team has deftly negotiated a path through their off-field problems, Guardiola has undoubtedly stumbled and fallen during that period.

In his first season as manager, City faced Monaco in the round of 16, but an 18-year-old Mbappe stole the show by scoring in both legs as Leonardo Jardim’s exciting young team progressed on away goals following a 6-6 aggregate draw. City’s inability to keep it tight defensively cost them against Monaco and it would be a recurring theme in the following two years with quarterfinal exits against Liverpool (5-1) in 2018 and Tottenham (4-4, away goals) a year later.

Guardiola blamed referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz for City’s elimination against Liverpool and said a failure to properly interpret VAR led to the exit against Spurs, but on each occasion, Guardiola’s team selection and tactical approach were also central factors.

There were no excuses a year later, when City were shocked by French club Lyon in the one-off quarterfinal in Lisbon during the COVID-19 pandemic. In that tie, more tactical tinkering — Guardiola surprisingly deployed a back three to match Lyon’s formation — led to confusion among his players and another early exit.

It was the same again a year later. Back in Portugal, this time for City’s first Champions League final against Chelsea in Porto, Guardiola’s team selection saw him name a side without a holding midfielder — Fernandinho and Rodri were both named as substitutes — and Kevin De Bruyne moved from midfield to play as a false nine while Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus started on the bench. City lost 1-0, with a Kai Havertz goal securing Chelsea’s second Champions League title, and this week, Guardiola appeared to accept that he made the wrong decision with his selection that night.

“If I tell you privately the reason why I took the decision in that moment you could say it was right,” Guardiola said. “But it is simple: If I lose, I am wrong; if I win, I am right. You have to accept that in this business. It was a tight game and in many things we were better than them but we lost. Would I do something different now? Maybe, but that doesn’t count.”

Guardiola and City looked to have cracked the code last season. They reached the semifinal and led 5-3 on aggregate until two goals by Rodrygo in stoppage time dragged Real back from the brink. A Karim Benzema penalty in extra time was enough to send the Spanish club into the final and leave City contemplating yet another failure.

It was down to naivety, poor defending and maybe a little slice of bad luck, with Jack Grealish having a shot cleared off the line moments before Rodrygo turned the tie on its head. In the final seconds of one game, all of City’s Champions League shortcomings had conspired to leave them punching the turf in frustration all over again.

But this season has been different. All of those past mistakes have been eradicated — City have blown teams away, been ruthless in attack and resolute at the back. And Guardiola has kept it simple by trusting his best players and most familiar tactics to take them to within 90 minutes of finally winning the Champions League.

Istanbul was the first step all those years ago, and now it could be the final one. It has been a long, tough journey, but City are ready to arrive.

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