By Luke Edwards
As the questions came, Pep Guardiola remained polite, even if he had heard most of them before.
On Wednesday night, he sets out for his sixth attempt to win the Champions League for Manchester City. He has been asked variations of the same questions every September, October, November and December. There were the usual array of quizzical looks as he listened, the occasional rubbing of his head and face as though to keep himself sharp, and one head-in-hands moment when he again had to deny he had said he was definitely going to leave City in 2023. Reaching the final in May has not changed the narrative much because the ambition to win European football’s most prestigious competition has not been realised.
The expectation remains the same, so, inevitably, the questions asked to manager and player before they launch their latest European campaign continue to be asked.
For Spanish midfielder Rodri – Do the club need to win the Champions League to be considered an elite club? Do you have unfinished business in this competition after going so close last season? Will Jack Grealish help you make the next step (winning the final) maybe?
He was asked other things, too, including how long it had taken him to recover from the devastation of defeat by Chelsea. He had “three s— days, when he could not talk to family and friends about it”, which sounded fair enough. His other replies can be condensed: “Winning the Champions League is in our heads … It is a dream of ours, but it is not compulsory.”
“Jack does not have a lot of European experience, but everyone can see his quality and he has played lots of international football …”
“I would sign right now if it meant we would get into another final … but we have to go step by step, starting against Leipzig and then getting out of the group.”
City do have a tougher-looking group this year. Leipzig may have sold most of the key players who got them to the semi-final in 2020, but they knocked Manchester United out in the group stage last year before losing to Liverpool in the round of 16. And with Paris St-Germain, who most people would consider – along with City – to be favourites to be crowned champions next May, also in Group A, as well as Brugge, it will not be straightforward to make the knockout rounds. City have managed that every season since Guardiola arrived in 2016, reaching the round of 16 in his first season, the quarter-finals three years running and then a first final last time around.
He was asked if his team were better prepared to win after making that final and whether his desire was as great now as it was when he started at Barcelona. There was also a nice one about whether teams have to go through the adversity of losing games like the ones against Lyon (quarter-final 2020) and Chelsea in order to win the big prizes. He said they probably did, while pointing out that they had a good run last year: “Thirteen games, won 11, drew one and lost one” but “people still say that is a failure, so we have a desire to do better.”
He made sure to stress that this was the start of a new competition and they would “try to win the first game”, that the “group stages are difficult” so they “ have to fight and prove they deserve to be in the next stages”. It was put to him that people still say, after five years of lifting domestic trophies, that he has to win the Champions League for his time at City to truly be deemed a success. Guardiola smiled and shrugged. “I accept that, every year is the same,” he said. “If I win the Champions League, I will be happy for the club. If not, we are not going to do it so … after you can judge whether my career is a success or not.
“I don’t know, I cannot answer this question. Every single day I try to do my best and people can judge my job how I judge my players and how incredible they have done the last four or five years.”
Here we go again. First up, Leipzig.
Team details (probable)
Manchester City (4-3-3): Ederson, Walker, Dias, Laporte, Cancelo, Rodri, Gundogan, Bernardo, Mahrez, Sterling, Grealish.
RB Leipzig (4-2-3-1): Gulacsi; Gvardiol, Simakin, Orban, Mukiele; Kampl, Laimer; Nkunku, Olmo, Szoboszlai; Silva.