There will be an overwhelming emotion for Pep Guardiola if Manchester City win the Champions League final. And it will be relief.
There will be tears, also, and plenty of them, even more than after the FA Cup final last Saturday, and of course it will complete an extraordinary Treble for City.
But above all for Guardiola there will be relief. Huge, unbridled relief. A relief that shows the extraordinary pressure he has put himself under and which he feels so acutely.
Twelve years is a long, long time for a manager such as Guardiola to wait to once again lay his hands on the greatest club trophy of them all – especially having won it twice in his first four attempts in 2009 and 2011 with Barcelona.
Twelve years later and at Barça, Bayern Munich, where he painfully lost three semi-finals in a row, and now City it has not happened. And it is the seven years at the Etihad which, in particular, Guardiola believes means winning this competition is long overdue. “We have to do it,” he was unequivocal in stating in his press conference earlier this week and that has become his mantra behind-the-scenes.
City have to do it. Their time is now. The consensus was that Guardiola, as he is often criticised for, over-thought the final against Chelsea two years ago which ended in a surprise 1-0 defeat in Lisbon. It was a shock result although most observers forget that Thomas Tuchel’s side had just defeated City in the league and while Guardiola has stoically accepted the criticism he has, privately, kept it to himself that neither Rodri, who was left out, nor Raheem Sterling who played, were fully fit and Fernandinho was 36. “I didn’t speak about the final. Some were there, some not,” Guardiola said this week.
Guardiola also rationalised it away that it was City’s first final and teams rarely win the Champions League at their first attempt. “It’s difficult to just arrive once in your lifetime and win,” he added.
But it is different now. Guardiola is fully confident that this is not just a stronger side than two years ago but one that is more mature, more balanced and better-equipped to succeed.
Crucially it is also more settled. There is unlikely to be any tinkering against Inter Milan. Everyone is calmer and a huge factor in that has been the signing of Erling Haaland with Guardiola believing that the phenomenal striker will give City that extra edge; that killer instinct that they have sometimes lacked.
An obsessive golf fan, Guardiola has often likened City’s previous failures to a player who easily hits the green but then two or three putts with the hole beckoning. They have failed in that clinical putt.
Haaland does not do that and others have followed. He defines them in a way that has not happened before and Guardiola has actually enjoyed the attention being on the Norwegian. He finds it easy to answer questions about him and his exploits as do many City players, including the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, even though he is a superstar in his own right.
Guardiola himself was more on edge last season, in fact. He felt the pressure and believed it was vital that City held off Liverpool and retained the Premier League title if he was to convince Haaland to join from Borussia Dortmund. Without that he genuinely feared Haaland might go elsewhere while there was the not inconsiderable issue of whether Guardiola would then renew his own contract and stay. Which he did.
Winning the league and signing Haaland were necessary and such is the player’s importance for City and for Guardiola it is understood that the release clause in his latest contract is higher if this manager remains in charge. If Guardiola goes, it goes down and the difference is estimated as being as much as €50 million (£43 million).
Guardiola believes that winning the Champions League will end the debate over where this City side sits in the pantheon. He hopes, somewhat optimistically, it will also end the carping that they have bought success and it will elevate them to a new standard. “Sooner or later we have to win in Europe to go to another level,” Guardiola argued and it is a view shared by chief executive Ferran Soriano and the club.
Winning the Champions League unlocks new competitions. City will play for the Uefa Super Cup, they will go to the Club World Cup. These are prizes they have never competed for in the past and Guardiola is all about creating history which is one of the reasons why he agreed to join City in the first place.
He wants to make history and City were newer, fresher in that regard than some of the other clubs he could have joined – not least United who he also found more unclear as to exactly what they wanted.
Guardiola lived this newness at Barcelona after they ended their decades-long quest to finally become European champions when Johan Cruyff’s side won at Wembley in 1992. Guardiola played in that final and it signalled a rich future for Barcelona which he was so much a part off, on and off the field.
It was also the first one – and there can be only one first time. Guardiola wants to be the first City coach to win the Champions League and while it does not mean others will naturally follow it does feel like it will become easier. It could usher in an era of continental, even world dominance, after City’s domestic exploits. For the rest of Europe that could be a scary proposition.
Guardiola obviously knows that by winning City will claim the Treble of European Cup, Premier League and FA Cup but that, in truth, interests him less than it does the club’s supporters who feel the rivalry with United more keenly.
Why? Because it would only be matching United, rather than bettering them, and Guardiola himself has won the Treble in the past with Barcelona, in 2009, and that was the first in Spanish football history. Indeed, if he had been given the choice at the start of the campaign of only winning the Champions League and foregoing the other trophies he would have taken it.
Winning it means that much. This will be Guardiola’s fourth final as a coach having, remarkably, been involved in 10 semi-finals. There is a saying among leading executives in European football that no-one, however good, can guarantee winning the Champions League but they should be able to consistently make the ‘cut’ into the last four.
Guardiola has done that but he knows it is not enough. Not now. If City lose to Inter he will not be a failure but it is a word he is not afraid to use and uttering it publicly means he is embracing the importance of Saturday’s game.
“People will say ‘But you didn’t win the Champions League!’” Guardiola said. “That is why I will be judged, if we don’t win it in my final period here, that I will be a failure here. I know that.”
It certainly appears, though, that Guardiola believes his work at City will be incomplete unless he wins them the Champions League and that, effectively, he cannot go until he has done it.
So which of those previous failures hurt the most? Interestingly it was the 2012 semi-final defeat to Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea and, in particular, the second-leg in Barcelona when Lionel Messi and Co battered their opponents – with Messi missing a penalty and John Terry sent off – but could not do it. After that exit, Guardiola turned to his trusted assistant Manuel Estiarte and told him he had decided to leave.
Was it because of the loss? Surely not but it certainly contributed to Guardiola being mentally and physically exhausted. He was suffering from terrible back problems and needed a year-long sabbatical. Even now it is probably the one that haunts him the most along with the third semi-final he lost at Bayern in 2016.
Again his team dominated their opponents, this time Atlético Madrid, but just could not score what they needed. They went out on the now defunct away goals rule.
There have been others. Guardiola called the 2014, 4-0 home defeat to Real Madrid “the biggest f--- up of my life”, he went berserk in the City dressing room following the loss away to Monaco in the Round of 16 – the earliest has ever gone out of the competition – in 2017.
It was similar last year when Guardiola was rendered almost speechless as City, in truth, threw it away in Madrid against Real. The chaotic loss was almost impossible to process but Guardiola has eventually done that even if it is also usually accompanied by a still disbelieving slow shake of the head.
A common denominator in most of these games, in truth, was making quixotic changes – such as abandoning a back-four against Lyon or dropping De Bruyne and Leroy Sané for the first leg against Tottenham – but that will not happen this time even if Guardiola is wary of defensively well-organised teams such as Inter who are not expected to show any desire to come out and play.
If City win, expect more tears. Guardiola internalises so much, especially on match-days when he is incredibly intense, that the release can be over-powering in victory and this will feel like the sweetest of all particularly after such a long, long wait.
Guardiola is an emotional, sensitive man – crying is not unusual for him – and it will all come out on the pitch at the Ataturk Stadium.
There will also be a reminder of the words Guardiola wrote with a black marker pen on the white walls of his office at City soon after he arrived in 2016. They were from his mentor, Marcelo Bielsa. “The moments in my life when I have improved are closely related to failure; the moments in my life when I have regressed are closely related to success,” the Argentinian said.
“Being successful deforms us as human beings, it relaxes us, it plays tricks on us, it makes us worse individuals, it feeds our egos. Failure is the complete opposite – it forms us, makes us more solid, brings us closer to our convictions, makes us more coherent.”
It is not an unusual sentiment for leading managers to share. Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger have spoken passionately about a variation of this and how the scars of defeat are still felt as if they were physically upon them. Victories are a fleeting, dangerous enjoyment.
For Guardiola, Bielsa’s words, amid the floods of relief and the tears, will resonate if he finally gets his hands on the Champions League trophy again.