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OLIVER HOLT: Pep Guardiola has to win Champions League to prove he can be a star without Messi

There is one more river to cross for Pep Guardiola. 

The coach who most regard as the best in the world is a visionary who has changed English football for the better and has done more than any other to turn it into a beautiful spectacle. 

In his four years in the Premier League, he has made watching Manchester City a pleasure and a privilege but it would be wrong to say he has nothing left to prove.

He has one more thing left to prove and he knows it. It is nine years now since he won the last of his two Champions League trophies with Barcelona.

Pep Guardiola has guided Man City to the Champions League quarter-final stage in Portugal

Each time that he failed to add to that tally in his spells at Bayern Munich and at the Etihad, his detractors have said that he owes his earlier successes to the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, and that he will never win the tournament again without him.

In those nine years, the Champions League has been won by Roberto di Matteo, Jupp Heynckes, Carlo Ancelotti (for the third time), Luis Enrique, Zinedine Zidane (three times) and Jurgen Klopp.

Guardiola has enjoyed outstanding domestic success with Bayern and City, and his City team of 2018-19 may be the best we have ever seen in this country but, still, the lack of more Champions League success leaves a question mark admirers are willing him to remove.

Sheikh Mansour’s men did not move mountains to bring Guardiola to Manchester to win domestic trophies. 

They brought him here to establish City as part of the global elite, to ensure they were mentioned in the same breath as Real Madrid and Barcelona and AC Milan and Bayern, to gatecrash that cosy club that regards them as nouveau riche upstarts to be kept at arm’s length. To do that, Guardiola has to win the Champions League.

The Spaniard has won the famous trophy before but only with Barcelona, earlier in his career

The Spaniard has won the famous trophy before but only with Barcelona, earlier in his career

Each time Guardiola was able to call upon the mercurial Lionel Messi to rip rival teams apart

Each time Guardiola was able to call upon the mercurial Lionel Messi to rip rival teams apart

City’s last-16 win over Madrid on Friday night felt like a big step in the right direction. It marked the first time Zidane had ever lost a knockout tie in the competition as manager. 

City’s first and second-leg triumphs over the most successful team in the tournament’s history were the most potent symbol yet of quite how far City have travelled since the Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008 and how close they are to joining European football’s elite.

Sure, I remember sitting in the North Stand at Maine Road and watching as Raddy Antic scored the late goal that relegated City from the top flight in 1983. 

I remember going on a mate’s stag-do and watching from a box in the Platt Lane End when City played out a dire 1-1 draw with Tranmere Rovers in August 1997 in the second tier. They went down at the end of that season, but those memories are increasingly irrelevant in the context of the club that City have become.

That was why Guardiola was quick to keep the club’s eyes on the bigger prize after the victory over Madrid. ‘It’s just one step,’ he said. ‘And if we think this is enough, it shows we are a small team.’

City will play Lyon in Lisbon in their quarter-final on Saturday night and are the competition favourites, but it is hard to escape the feeling that they should have won this tournament already. Part of the obstacle that Guardiola has faced is that the club’s supporters have had an ambivalent attitude towards the competition.

They have routinely booed the Champions League music before games. Perhaps that is partly because it has such a special place in the history of Liverpool and Manchester United, but it is also because of a perception that Uefa and its ancient regime cabal of establishment clubs will do everything they can to keep City on the outside looking in.

Guardiola built his teams around Messi and made Barca Europe's most formidable side

Guardiola built his teams around Messi and made Barca Europe’s most formidable side

This is the year when Guardiola and City have to change that. They should use their overthrow of Uefa’s attempt to impose upon them a two-year ban from the competition as an extra motivation. 

Never mind their manager, it is time for City to prove something, too. Their domestic success has been something to savour, but the giants of the game are measured by the number of times they have won the greatest club trophy.

The magazine FourFourTwo ran a quiz last week asking readers to name the 39 teams who had played in either a European Cup or Champions League final. City were not among them.

Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Leeds United have all made it to the biggest game in club football. City have not. This year represents a golden opportunity to put that right.

Guardiola’s critics have accused him of squandering previous opportunities in the competition in the years since his last victory in 2011, when Messi blew away Manchester United at Wembley. He came under scrutiny for playing Philipp Lahm, then the world’s best full-back, in midfield in Bayern’s semi-final defeat by Real Madrid in 2014. His selections in defeats to Liverpool and Spurs in the last two seasons have also been questioned.

But he got it right against Zidane and Madrid. Only five managers have won the competition with two different clubs. Only three managers have won it three times. This is Guardiola’s chance to claim the place in history that his genius deserves.

Fury at Lampard is frankly absurd

The latest example of attempted group-think in football is the outrage that has greeted Frank Lampard’s nomination as one of the four candidates for Premier League Manager of the Season.

Sorry, but Lampard’s nomination is fully deserved. He took a side that had lost its best player, Eden Hazard, and was hamstrung by a transfer ban and then unleashed the potential of the club’s academy system, changed the mood around Stamford Bridge, qualified for the Champions League and got to the FA Cup final.

For all Frank Lampard has achieved, his Manager of the Season nomination is well deserved

For all Frank Lampard has achieved, his Manager of the Season nomination is well deserved

Not bad for a debut season in the top flight. And I know at least one of the other nominees would have voted for him. 

If you don’t agree, that’s fine, but the need to scream and shout and mock is strange and dispiriting. It’s just an opinion. We’re all allowed one.

Henderson merits all praise 

When the Football Writers’ Association voted Jordan Henderson as its Footballer of the Year, the news was greeted variously with accusations of venality, ignorance, deference and bias. 

Now, Henderson has been nominated by the Premier League as one of its seven contenders for the player of the season, too. So, chew on that. 

Jordan Henderson posing with the Football Writer's Association Player of the Year award

Jordan Henderson posing with the Football Writer’s Association Player of the Year award

Rory shows he’s a real sport

Some years ago, a late colleague of mine slipped on a grassy bank while he was following a group at The Open and rolled down into a bunker.

He was mortified, obviously, and his momentary embarrassment still gives me nightmares.

I have bad dreams about scurrying along by the side of the green, letting my attention waver and suddenly feeling the prod of a ball under my foot.

The nightmare came to life for an ESPN reporter at the USPGA Championship in San Francisco on Friday when they stood on Rory McIlroy’s ball in rough by the side of the third green.

Rory McIlroy showed sportsmanship after getting a better lie after a reporter stood on his ball

Rory McIlroy showed sportsmanship after getting a better lie after a reporter stood on his ball

Thankfully, it turned into a positive story.

McIlroy was offered the chance by the rules official to replace his ball and when the Ulsterman felt that the lie he now had gave him an unfair advantage, he objected and the ball was placed deeper in the rough.

McIlroy made bogey on the hole but gained something far more precious for his act of sportsmanship.

The feel of that ball under his foot, though, is going to haunt that reporter for a long time.

Big-hitting Bryson must be angry 

I had a golf lesson once. The young club pro was so defeated by my lack of grasp of the mechanics of a swing that he resorted to the most basic advice. ‘Hit it like you’re mad at it,’ he said.

It always struck me as rather a foolish tip but I stayed up watching the US PGA Championship on Thursday night, entranced by the violent assaults on the ball launched by golf’s new box office attraction and it hit me like a bolt of lightning: that pro’s surname must have been DeChambeau and when he grew up, he had a kid and named it Bryson.

After bulking up Bryson DeChambeau now bludgeons the ball and has become golf's big hitter

After bulking up Bryson DeChambeau now bludgeons the ball and has become golf’s big hitter

Brave voting clubs should be applauded 

It takes a degree of political courage for the EFL to introduce a salary cap in Leagues One and Two and the clubs who voted it in deserve credit for finally responding to the demands of the present and the lessons of the recent past.

The League is pockmarked with clubs reeling from financial mismanagement, points deductions and the gerrymandering of desperate regimes. 

Some of them need protecting from themselves for the sake of their fans. At lower-league level, the salary cap is a welcome step towards that.


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