Pep Guardiola had refused to give Real Madrid a guard of honour to mark them becoming Spanish champions.
But he had no choice but to offer Real his ultimate respect after seeing them produce an astonishing comeback to ruin Manchester City’s European dream. And what would Guardiola give to see the same character, heart and defiance in his own side when it comes to the Champions League?
Real have found ways to stay in the competition this season when all looked lost. Just ask Paris Saint Germain, Chelsea and now City. In stark contrast, meanwhile, City continue to find ways not to win the one trophy that still eludes them.
But even by City’s standards, Wednesday’s capitulation in the Bernabeu scaled new heights of failure, it has to be said.
Guardiola looked like he’d seen a ghost at the final whistle. He’d actually seen three. They were called Carlo Ancotti, Rodrygo and Karim Benzema – the architects for Real’s remarkable comeback win.
He was still in shock when he spoke to the media afterwards and the faces of those mentioned above will now haunt him for a long, long time. But once the smelling salts kick in, Guardiola will realise he’s now knee deep in a desperate fight to salvage something from the wreckage of a disintegrating season.
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No one feels the losses more than him – and no one thinks more about what went wrong. But this needs to be parked until the summer, because Guardiola’s immediate task is to scrape his stars off the floor in a bid to go on and win the title.
If he cannot do this then Liverpool will be champions instead. And if this happens, Jurgen Klopp won’t just be dethroning Guardiola as the king of English football, he will be taking his crown as the best manager in the world as well.
Guardiola’s worst fears are now in serious danger of coming true as he finds himself stuck on a tragic roundabout of European underachievement. Klopp and Liverpool can still win a quadruple, while City could end up with nothing come the end of this month.
To his Etihad boss Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, this scenario is unthinkable and unacceptable, even if the City chairman will never admit the latter. It’s also unfathomable considering Guardiola persuaded him to spend £100m on Jack Grealish last summer, making him the most expensive player in British football history.
In the two legs with Real, Grealish played a grand total of less than 45 minutes in both legs. So another inquest has begun into how City have come up short in Europe once again.
The scenario has become as predictable as a Government scandal. But unlike disgraced ‘Tractorgate’ MP Neil Parish, Guardiola has no excuses, however laughable they might be.
While Klopp has led Liverpool to three Champions League finals in the last five seasons and won one, Guardiola has done it once and lost.
Almost £1billion has been lavished on providing him with the most expensive squad the game has ever seen. But the end result remains the same – zero Champions League triumphs.
By his astonishing standards, it’s nowhere near good enough. And no matter what he does or spends, Guardiola has to accept that even a genius like him just cannot seem to buy the biggest trophy of all.
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