Pep Guardiola starts another European campaign all too aware of the standards he is judged by. He won the Champions League in two of his first three seasons in management. There has not been a sequel in the subsequent decade but he did pilot Manchester City to their maiden final in May.
“People can say Manchester City was a failure,” said Guardiola. “That is their opinion. It was an incredible achievement what we did last season. We made a step forward. We played well in so many games but then lost the final.”
His hope is that disappointment can be the tonic to help City end their wait. Guardiola takes heart from City’s response to 2020’s quarter-final defeat to Lyon, perhaps their most disappointing result in a European knockout tie under him. Guardiola recounted City’s response: “We played 13 games, we won 11, drew one when we played incredibly well and lost the final.”
And as midfielder Rodri recalled, that was painful. “You have three bad days the next days,” he said. “You cannot even talk to your families and friends. They are there to support you but your face is not as you want.”
Guardiola reflected on the anguish defeat to Chelsea brought. “The players have feelings and soul and you know it hurts when you cannot achieve,” he said, but it provides a renewed motivation. “We have the feeling that we can do better, we reached the final of the Champions League, so it’s a motor. They want it but there are many other teams who want it too.”
Chelsea defeat City in Champions League final
The reality that there are a host of contenders and only one winner can make judgments harsh. “Every season people ask who is the favourites and I cannot answer because it is unpredictable,” Guardiola said. “There are many strong teams.”
City eliminated some of them last year, winning home and away against Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid. They only conceded five times in those 13 matches. Part of the message from Guardiola, though, was that they start from scratch again as they host RB Leipzig on Wednesday.
“Sport is always a new challenge,” he said. “What happened in the past, happened in the past. It is not guaranteed if you make a bad Champions League the previous season that you will make a bad Champions League. It doesn’t mean because we did well last year that we are going to do well. We have to fight for and deserve to be in the next stages.”
That may be more difficult this year: City have cruised through recent group stages but a pool with the 2020 semi-finalist Leipzig and runners-up Paris Saint-Germain may be different. “Now we have a tough group and we are going to show the same level,” added Rodri.
If the Champions League is not the only marker of success, Rodri underlined that reaching the last two was a feat in itself. “I would sign right now to get into another final,” he said. “I think all the players in the squad have a little bit more ambition every year. It is a dream for a lot of us.”
But he has a particular reason to hope City return to the showpiece. The Spaniard made the most appearances for City last season but was benched for the Champions League final, with Ilkay Gundogan selected to anchor the midfield instead. “I never regret about that, it is the coach’s decision,” Rodri rationalised. “He thought it would be better to put another player in. I am going to work hard to show in these key moments I can be the player I need to be.”