The club that Pep Guardiola built
England’s much maligned League Cup hardly ever features in the list of major trophies for teams at the top of the Premier League.
The Premier League, the Champions League and the FA Cup are the main prizes, and the League Cup a distant also-ran. Most view it as a distraction, a drain on the first team, and the cup’s early rounds are marked by England’s Big Six (Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspurs, Chelsea and Arsenal) fielding second-string sides, often brimming with youth team players. So it’s not surprising that the cup changes names on the basis of whichever company is sponsoring it—this year, it’s called the Carabao Cup.
And yet, when club manager Josep “Pep” Guardiola and captain Vincent Kompany lifted the trophy for Manchester City on 25 February, after outplaying a listless Arsenal 3-0 at the Wembley Stadium, there was an unmistakable sense of occasion. This was Guardiola’s first trophy in England, and with the Premier League pretty much sewn up (Man City have a 16-point lead at the top of the table with nine games left), he’s on course for a domestic double. This could even blossom into a treble, with the club through to the Champions League quarter-finals.
Why is this season already a big deal for Guardiola and Manchester City? For starters, City are not just cantering towards their third league title in the Premier League era, they’re doing so while playing a frictionless, aesthetically pleasing style of football that is reminiscent of Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona team (2008-12). And that team was defined as much by their insatiable hunger for trophies as for their footballing style.
This is Guardiola’s second full season at City, and last year (2016-17) his team flattered to deceive—after flying off the blocks with a six-game winning run, City fell off the pace in December 2016, even as the eventual champions, Chelsea, found their winning touch. City failed in the other competitions as well, coming up short in the semi-finals in the FA Cup, the fourth round of the League Cup and the Round of 16 in the Champions League. It represented an unwanted record for Guardiola, the first trophy-less year as a senior-level manager.
That has changed emphatically this season. City have lost just once in the league so far, scoring 114 goals in all competitions as of the beginning of March. In Kevin De Bruyne, City have the most exciting attacking midfielder in the world, and “old hands” Sergio Agüero and David Silva remain among the best players in their positions. The England striker Raheem Sterling is blossoming under Guardiola, and City have mastered the Guardiola way of mesmerizing, devastating football. City have spent a staggering £448 million (around Rs4,057 crore) since Guardiola joined, but, unlike Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester United, which have spent similar amounts of money in the past two years, Manchester City are now an actual team, and not a collection of individual stars. This is due to Guardiola’s vision and coaching, and, if City manage to go on and claim their final frontier of becoming European champions, it would represent a new stage in the evolution of the club as a continental power.
That competition still represents a stern challenge, with Real Madrid, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Barcelona all likely to progress to the quarter-finals with City. Domestically, Liverpool are growing into credible challengers under Jürgen Klopp, and Manchester United and Chelsea have vast resources of their own. Even with just a double, however, it feels like Guardiola is on the verge of setting up another footballing dynasty.
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