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On the upper tier of the huge stand opposite the dug outs at the Etihad Stadium hangs a banner thanking Manchester City’s owner Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi for a trophy-heavy first ten years.
We are four years in to the second decade of Middle East ownership now and watching this incredible game of European football it was hard not to wonder what further fabulous dramas may lie ahead.
More particularly, it seemed increasingly strange – as City traded thunderous blows with the best team in Spain – to ponder why Pep Guardiola would even think about leaving when his current contract expires at the end of next season.
Why would Pep Guardiola ever want to walk away from Man City with what the future holds?
We have seen some quite remarkable things at this stadium in recent times. Some of them have involved games against Liverpool and against Manchester United and against Tottenham.
It is almost 10 years ago exactly since we sat spellbound as City tossed away their very first Premier League title against QPR and then, at the death, grabbed it back again.
This, though, was among the most thrilling of the lot.
This was Real Madrid in attendance. The most successful club in the history of European football. Leaders of La Liga by 15 points.
And City beat them wonderfully and dashingly. It was only due to Real’s cussedness and indeed City’s rather ragged finishing that the margin of defeat was not greater.
We have seen some quite remarkable things at this stadium in recent times, including games against Liverpool, Manchester United and their European semi-final with Tottenham (pictured)
For City where better by a distance for huge swathes of this game. They inflicted upon Real possibly the most satisfying one-goal defeat of this great institution’s very existence. Real are still in this tie ahead of next Wednesday’s second leg in Madrid and will be desperately thankful for that.
This is the City team that Guardiola built and much as they were brilliantly expansive and precocious here, it is one that will only grow better, wiser and more talented from this point.
Next season, for example, the Premier League leaders are expected to have the Norwegian forward Erling Haaland in their ranks.
So, yes, it seems strange that Guardiola would even think about leaving as he has previously suggested he will.
When he left Barcelona after four magnificent years in 2012, the great Catalan was burned out, worn down by the demands of the job and the constant needling of Jose Mourinho’s Real.
Their Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid was among the best of the lot
Guardiola’s men edged Real Madrid 4-3 on the night and were the better team throughout
It does not feel the same now. The energy of Guardiola’s team reflects the enduring dynamism of their coach and to watch them play here was to watch one of the great English sides any of us have ever seen.
City terrified and terrorised Real for the first half an hour. They were two goals up in record time and could have been out of sight by the time Karim Benzema scored beautifully, deftly but quite unexpectedly in the 33rd minute.
Real spent huge periods of this game on the retreat.
But it was that opening spell that found them at their most disorganised, their most bereft as they discovered, like many before them, just how it feels to walk in to the teeth of the City threshing machine.
As the minutes ticked by, so the City opportunities came and went. The speed at which Guardiola’s players moved the ball was just too quick for the Spaniards.
Every time a player in dark blue turned to face his own goal, it was to witness one in a lighter shade sprinting past him either with, or in anticipation of receiving, the ball.
This is the team that Guardiola built and it will only grow better, wiser and more talented when Erling Haaland (pictured) arrives as expected ahead of next season
City need to be more clinical at that time. Riyad Mahrez shot when he should have passed. Gabriel Jesus passed when he should have shot.
Had Haaland been in this line up already then maybe this game and this tie could have been over by half-time.
But is it not football’s, and indeed footballers’, imperfections that keep pulling great coaches back into the game?
There is no such thing as a finished job – a finished article – in sport and surely Guardiola will have pause to mull that this summer whatever happens between now and the Champions League final in Paris on May 28.
Football teams do tend to exist in cycles. This much we know. The wheel turns and periods of excellence – or otherwise – come to an end.
City will only keep on improving and at 51 years old, why would Guardiola want to leave now?
But it does not feel like that at the Etihad at the moment. It feels as though this team – already free of the shadow of players like Vincent Kompany, Sergio Aguero and David Silva – is nearer the start of its road than to the end.
For all its quirks, this has the look of the greatest City team Guardiola has assembled in his six years in England. Its rivalry with Liverpool is magnetic.
If Guardiola does not continue to work here beyond next season, it’s hard to wonder where he will go. Even harder to work out why.
Source: DailyMail Sports