- 26 Feb 20
In the first instalment of his new Foul Play column, Paul Nolan outlines why he believes that, as Man City face the acid test of their Champions League credentials against Real Madrid, they are likely to be found wanting yet again…
Even amongst the many great sporting memories I have, the night of May 28, 2011 is still one of those occasions that stands apart. Aiming for their second Champions League title in three years, Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, with the majestic Lionel Messi football to the fore, were favourites against a Man Utd team which, while impressive, didn't realistically contain the talent of the Ronaldo-led team of three years earlier, nor the iconic Treble winning team of 1999 (a side whose array of achievements even extended to a memorable tribute to Roy Keane from Martin Amis in The Observer).
Even as someone who'd been a Barcelona fan ever since Romario and Stoichkov destroyed United at the Nou Camp in '94 – a night Ferguson subsequently pointed to as a watershed moment in his managerial career – I and many other football fans weren't prepared for what unfolded. Over 90 minutes at Wembley, Barcelona produced a performance of sublime brilliance that probably came as close as we'd seen to perfection: it was symphonic football.
It was a performance perhaps best summed up by Barca's first and third goals in a 3-1 victory: the former commenced with Xavi instinctively JUMPING over a through ball to allow it roll in front of him, before delivering an inch-perfect through ball for Pedro; the second saw a typical piece of wizardry from Messi on the right wing end with a pass to David Villa, who unleashed a spectacular 18-yard shot into the top corner past a despairing Edwin van der Sar.
Following on from Spain's World Cup win the previous year, it was the night when, for me, Barcelona and Spanish football truly took the torch from Brazil as the keepers of the eternal flame: the belief that the ultimate achievement in football was not just winning, but winning in style, with an attacking philosophy that enthralled, dazzled, inspired. As that great chronicler of Spanish football Graham Hunter has noted, one of Guardiola's cherished dreams is leading Brazil to a World Cup win – a sort of borderline conceptual art project that, for me, could probably only be equalled by Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl forming a one-off Blur/Nirvana supergroup (don't think I haven't lobbied hard to make the latter happen!).
This endearing romantic streak, virtually impossible for football lovers not to succumb to, is a big part of the reason why many of us looked on in some dismay when Pep signed up to the Man City project. If not a disappointment on the scale of Morrissey's solo career, it was hard not to feel some disenchantment. Here was a man who had spent his career, indeed his life, preaching from the gospel according to Cruyff – a doctrine so hardline in its adherence to total football, Cruyff was by all accounts torn when Spain's 2010 World Cup final opponents were a dogged outfit from his native Netherlands (their philosophy: hit first and never ask questions).
In its worst interpretation – and there were plenty willing to believe it – Pep's new position was frontman for a project based around buying titles, bankrolled by an oppressive regime in Abu Dhabi. Romantic football's dead and gone, it's with Cruyff in the grave, etc etc. Still, it could be that the very elements that underpinned the Man City rise will now be what undo it.
The financial doping accusations that have been flying around the club for several years have now manifested in a two-year Champions League ban for "serious breaches of Financial Fair Play", a censure Man City have indicated they will devote the full weight of their considerable resources to fighting, starting with appealing the ruling at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
It's in this climate that Man City – in a twist worthy of a novel – face off against Guardiola's old foes Real Madrid this evening. For a man who rightly believes the Champions League is the ultimate test of any serious team's credentials, Guardiola could scarcely have ended up at a more curious club: it's almost as if the soullessness of the City project prevents them from fully embracing the tournament's storied history.
Adding to Guardiola's recent woes, the atmosphere at City has been throw into stark contrast by Jurgen Klopp's messianic presence at the all-conquering Liverpool. Despite a dedicated community of sceptics – of which yours truly was a fully paid-up member – Klopp believed that his best chance of success on Merseyside was replicating his Borussia Dortmund template: under his watch, Liverpool would become a cause, belief system – drawing on everything from the club's rich footballing tradition to the city's glorious history of left wing resistance – that would crush any obstacle.
Klopp's approach finally, decisively wrestled me into submission during his team's unforgettable reversal of a 3-0 first leg loss to Barcelona last season ("What we are attempting should be impossible," he told his troops beforehand, "but because it's you, it's not.") Quite simply, this was a victory that would have made Cruyff himself explored with pride. Liverpool unleashed a ferocious performance, and Barcelona eventually melted in the white heat of the Anfield furnace. It was a footballing triumph, and a spiritual annihilation, so complete that it made doubting Thomases like me into fully fledged Klopp disciples (I still want Barca to win this season, mind).
In the face of such adversity – inevitable at some stage of the competition – can we really imagine Guardiola pushing his squad of exorbitantly paid superstars to such emotional extremity? Despite all the inevitable talk of a siege mentality at City, I think this tie, psychologically, is perfectly poised for Zinedine Zidane's men: with some justification, they view themselves as aristocrats of the competition, and will delight in City being hyped up as the new kings of European football.
In terms of the actual tactical nuts and bolts, I think Real also have the edge. They will be aware that Aymeric Laporte and Fernandinho have fine defensive qualities. They will also be aware that neither is Vincent Kompany. And in midfield, for all of the flashes of creative brilliance from Kevin De Bruyne, he cannot truly a run a game in the manner of the untouchable Luca Modric – for me the only midfielder in world football in recent years who belongs in the same company as Guardiola's old generals, Xavi and Iniesta.
One thing is for sure: this will be another memorable chapter in a competition that never fails to deliver. Bring it on.