Manchester City have one foot in the Champions League semi-finals after a 3-0 win over Bayern Munich on Tuesday that served as a reminder of manager Pep Guardiola’s brilliance despite his long wait to conquer Europe.
Guardiola claimed to have been “emotionally destroyed” by the tension of a night on which his current side showed a clinical edge they have often lacked to get over the line at this stage of the competition.
In the 12 years since Guardiola last lifted the European Cup as Barcelona boss, he has often been accused of over-complicating things in the Champions League knockout stages.
That included three semi-final exits during his time in charge of Bayern between 2014 and 2016.
The closest Guardiola has come to delivering City’s long-awaited Champions League glory came in losing the 2021 final to Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea.
Tuchel’s appointment as Bayern boss less than three weeks ago appeared very much with this tie in mind.
But this time the German was outfoxed as all of Guardiola’s big calls paid off to inflict Bayern’s heaviest Champions League defeat for six years.
After much tinkering early in the season, Guardiola has settled on a defence made up entirely of natural centre-backs in Nathan Ake, Ruben Dias, John Stones and Manuel Akanji.
As a result, Joao Cancelo was on the Bayern bench having been surprisingly allowed to leave on loan in January by Guardiola.
– Bayern ‘punished brutally’ –
Stones has tended to be the Portuguese’s successor by acting as right-back out of possession and moving into midfield when City have the ball.
But the England international started at centre-back, with Akanji shifted to right-back to handle the pace of Leroy Sane and Kingsley Coman.
“The game that played all four is amazing because to handle Leroy and Coman you have to be defensively really good in the duels,” said Guardiola.
“The back four, how they handled it without stress, without being anxious. Knowing that in that type of game there are minutes where you are going to suffer, to struggle.”
For once City ended a home game having had less possession, but led through Rodri’s stunning first-half strike and then ruthlessly pounced upon Bayern errors when they came in the final 20 minutes.
“We got punished brutally,” said Tuchel. “This is the highest level in world football.”
Guardiola’s decision to recall Bernardo Silva at the expense of Riyad Mahrez paid off when the Portugal midfielder capped a brilliant performance by heading home the second.
By that point Julian Alvarez had replaced Kevin De Bruyne in a change that helped swing the momentum City’s way.
“I’m here to take decisions and I take it. That’s my biggest quality as a manager,” added Guardiola on De Bruyne’s withdrawal.
“I see the performance on the pitch in that moment we needed extra energy with Julian and that’s why I decided.”
Twice Alvarez came close to scoring himself, but the Argentine did have a part to play in the third goal that gives Bayern a mountain to climb in Munich.
Alvarez’s cross was headed down by Stones and into the path of Erling Haaland to slot home his 45th goal of the season.
Haaland was signed to be the difference maker when ties like this are decided by fine margins.
The same was said of Guardiola when he was first lured from Munich to Manchester seven years ago.
City’s Abu Dhabi owners are still waiting for their moment of Champions League glory, but Guardiola’s men are getting closer.
Only a remarkable Bayern comeback in eight days’ time will deny them a third consecutive semi-final.