When it comes to the business end of the Champions League, Pep Guardiola has been unable to steer his side toward victory in an away tie for eight years. Why is that the case?
When this writer made his predictions for what would happen in football in 2019, there was a fair chance they wouldn’t come to pass. Predicting the future is, after all, a mug’s game. Just ask the bookies. But there was one prediction that even the worst gambler could have made: VAR’s impending introduction to the Champions League would bring with it controversy.
And so it came to pass on Wednesday, as Tottenham Hotspur face Manchester City in the Etihad Stadium, there were two incidents that stirred debate. Fernando Llorente’s vital goal for the London outfit was a suspected handball (by the letter of the law, it was not, by the way), but it was Raheem Sterling’s last gasp finish that created the real controversy.
The home crowd went absolutely insane when the winger scored in the 93rd minute, seemingly sealing City’s place in the last four. The braying subsided, turning into an eerie hush when the stadium announcer revealed over the tannoy that the goal was under VAR review. Sergio Aguero, who had assisted the England international for the club’s most dramatic goal since “Agueroooooooooo”, turned out to be offside by the tiniest margins. But offside he was, and just like that City were out.
Pep Guardiola, who just moments beforehand had allowed himself to lose his everloving mind, jumping and waving like an overgrown child in a bouncy castle, slumped to his knees in disbelief, as if his first-born had just been sacrificed. From ecstasy to agony, in the blink of an eye.
Judging by those decisions alone, the margins between victory and defeat were miniscule, but the difference between reaching the semi-finals and being eliminated in the quarters can be brought back to the first leg at the new Spurs stadium, where the home side won by a solitary goal.
The away goal rule carrying the kind of weight that it does in these knockout ties, not going for the kill in that leg is, in one way, cowardly. Alex Ferguson’s attitude in Europe was along the lines of: win your home games, don’t lose your away ones. Which is all fine and dandy if you manage to do exactly that, but realistically the Scot’s European record should have read better than it actually did and perhaps that’s why. And as Ajax have shown against both Real Madrid and Juventus this season, teams with visions of greatness have to be prepared to dominate on their trips away from home.
Not doing so is what did for City and Pep this week. While turning around a one-goal deficit was clearly within their grasp, not gaining that crucial away goal puts you at a severe disadvantage, and so it proved on Wednesday night.
The Spanish manager arguably should have won three Champions League trophies in his first three years as a manager, and had it not been for an Icelandic volcano they probably would have beaten Internazionale by the requisite amount of goals to qualify for the 2010 final. Since his last triumph in the competition, with Barcelona in 2011, he has had the curious habit of losing away legs in the latter stages of the Champions League. Indeed, his teams have not won away from home in a quarter or semi-final in the Champions League in that period.
Pep Guardiola’s away leg woes in the Champions League
Remarkably, in the seven knockout ties that Pep’s teams have been eliminated from Europe’s elite competition since he last received a winner’s medal, they have lost the away tie 1-0 on four occasions. Three times he’s lost to English teams, and another three times it was to Spanish sides. On six occasions his side have failed to score, nabbing just one away goal.
Chelsea, 2012: 1-0
The strangest result of Barça’s Pep era, his side crashed out of the Champions League semi-finals to a Roberto Di Matteo-led Chelsea. The Blues went on to win the whole thing by beating Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena, showing that the best teams don’t always win the competition.
Di Matteo had been sacked by West Brom before becoming caretaker manager at Stamford Bridge, didn’t last very long when he was made permanent, and his last job in management saw him sacked by Aston Villa in 2016 after just five months in charge. Football is an odd beast at times.
Real Madrid, 2014: 1-0
Pep returned to football from his sabbatical in 2013 after leaving his role at Barcelona the year previously, guiding Bayern Munich to the last four of the Champions League. The reigning champions lost 1-0 at the Bernabeu, before getting destroyed 4-0 at home. The German outfit set a ridiculous tempo at the beginning of the match, but tired themselves out before succumbing to Real Madrid’s lethal counter-attack.
Barcelona, 2015: 3-0
The most deflating defeat of Pep’s career up to this point, when his Bayern side were mauled by his former charges. The Bundesliga supremos didn’t get a single shot on target in the away leg, before going out 5-3 on aggregate.
Atletico Madrid, 2016: 1-0
Another 1-0 defeat away from home, Bayern narrowly lost out to Diego Simeone’s battling charges in one of the most tense semi-finals in recent memory. Guardiola’s side were unfortunate to go out after having so many great chances to score, but the Spaniards were resolute in defence.
Monaco, 2017: 3-1
The most entertaining game of the lot up until City faced Spurs this week, Guardiola’s first European campaign in Manchester was ended by an exciting Monaco in the last 16, the earliest point at which one of his teams has been eliminated. They were in a decent position going into the second leg, having won 5-3, but lost 3-1 at the Stade Louis II and went out on the away goals rule. For the first time in his career, Pep ended a season without winning a trophy.
Liverpool, 2018: 3-0
The game where Liverpool put down a marker not only in that season’s Champions League, but for next year’s Premier League too. The Reds dominated a conservative City side that didn’t display the kind of width that made them so imperious domestically.
Spurs, 2019: 1-0
City showed tremendous determination and will to get themselves in a position to complete a comeback in the second leg, but the tie had already been won in the first leg. Following a trend seen many of the aforementioned fixtures, Guardiola’s conservative approach in the away leg cost them dearly.
— Nostalgia Ultras 🎙 (@NostalgiaUltra5) April 19, 2019
Is there something deeper to these defeats? Could there be a mental block when it comes to these hugely important knockout games? One thing that is for sure is that Guardiola definitely changes approach from what works in the league to something different in a two-legged affair.
Pep is known as a deep thinker, but there’s every chance he’s overcomplicating matters when his side comes up against other elite clubs. Then again, the Champions League is an extremely difficult competition to win and it can be hard to pinpoint exact reasons for trends like these. Sometimes the sheer randomness of football gets in the way.