Pep Guardiola makes it magnificent No 9 with latest Manchester City league title

Spanish manager seals standout triumph under shadow of coronavirus 12 years on from his first domestic crown with Barca

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Twelve years ago, Pep Guardiola won his first league title as a manager. The circumstances were similar to those around his ninth. The nearest challenger, Real Madrid, lost on the 35th match day by a single goal, making any catch-up mathematically impossible. Watching on television, Barcelona’s players were Liga champions with three matches to spare.

For Barca in mid-May 2009, read Manchester City in mid-May 2021. Listen to the echoes in the words of the victorious coach, who was then in his first season in a top division, having been boldly promoted at the age of 37.

“We have to keep our feet on the ground,” said the new champion, “and the players have to leave aside being told how great we have been. We have to prepare for a very big game.” Precocious Pep was focusing on the next target, with a European Cup final ahead.

Guardiola won three La Ligas in four seasons as Barca manager. He won three in three at Bayern Munich. He has just collected his third in four years at City, which frames his dazzling career with an impressive symmetry. La Liga, the Bundesliga and the Premier League have been the strongest domestic competitions of his era. He has triumphed, and kept triumphing, in each.

There are common factors to all his league wins. With Guardiola, a coach of firm beliefs, values and dogmas, that is to be expected.

Title No 1 with Barcelona – who went on to beat Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final – featured a record-breaking run of form: 21 games unbeaten, with only two draws. Title No 9 has featured a 19-match sequence without defeat, equalling City’s best ever.

The 2020-21 title does stand out, though. This sporting year, played almost entirely behind-closed-doors, shadowed by Covid-19, will forever be an outlier.

Guardiola talked of “resilience” as a foundation of City’s latest success, and at times a brake has been carefully applied. Unless there are some surreal scorelines in the remaining three games, Guardiola will oversee a championship seized with his most modest number of goals yet from a 38-game league.

Gallery: 10 key games in City's title march

The 18-club Bundesliga has fewer fixtures, but, even there, Guardiola’s Bayern never registered less than 80 in the Goals For column. City are on 72 goals so far.

His Barcelona, armed with Lionel Messi, would regularly aspire to 100-goal campaigns. His first Premier League with City, in 2017-18, was achieved with the magic numbers of 106 goals, and 100 points.

His leading marksmen, title by title, include some of the most admired centre-forwards of this century: Samuel Eto’o, Mario Mandzukic, Robert Lewandowski, Sergio Aguero. And, of course, Messi, who supplied more than 30 goals per campaign towards two of the Barcelona Ligas under Guardiola.

In this company, Ilkay Gundogan, a footballer sometimes classified as an anchor midfielder, cannot help but look like the odd man out.

The German’s 12 league goals are currently two more than the only other player who has registered in double-figures for City in this Premier League, Raheem Sterling. Aguero has been injured more than he has been fit and the packed fixture-schedule prioritised rest and rotation.

“A Premier League title like no other,” Guardiola called his latest, “and the hardest one.” None of his other league titles featured such a rocky start – City notched a mere three wins from their opening eight games – although, as he turns his thoughts to how to win his third European Cup as a coach, and then his 10th league title, it is worth remembering that the entire Guardiola odyssey took off from a bumpy beginning.

Here’s a flavour of how it all began, 441 league matches ago. On the day the novice Guardiola took charge of his first ever top-division fixture, it was a dreary anti-climax.

The Guardiola debut was deemed "predictable," "worrying", and "cautious". Those are not terms readily associated with Pep the brilliant visionary, the great innovator and inspirer. But those were the words in the pro-Barcelona newspaper El Mundo Deportivo's match report on September 1, 2008, the verdict on the new, young Barca manager's opening day.

The team had lost 1-0 at Numancia. Three years and three Spanish titles later, Guardiola had fashioned a side widely considered the finest club team of the 21st century. He’s still aiming that high. Add a European Cup to his City portfolio, and his resilient English champions will step closer to that podium.