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Fine Margins, Rules Implemented a Year Too Late and the UCL Luck of Pep Guardiola

Jonathan Wilson

There is a photograph taken in the immediate aftermath of Barcelona’s European Cup semifinal victory over IFK Gothenburg in 1986 that shows midfielder Victor Munoz struggling through hordes of celebrating fans. Barcelona had been 3-0 down after the first leg, but at the Camp Nou it fought back and then won a penalty shootout. This, surely, was Barcelona’s year at last. After all, the final was being played in Spain, and its opponents would not be one of the fabled giants of the European game, but instead Romanian champion Steaua Bucharest, who would bring just 200 fans west of the Iron Curtain. On the right of the photograph, clinging to Munoz’s arm was a 15-year-old ball boy: Pep Guardiola.

But Barça did not beat Steaua in the final. It would be another six years before it won its first European Cup, by which time Guardiola was in the side. For the club he grew up supporting, the tournament at times seemed an impossible quest, something politics and the fates kept denying them. That’s why Barcelona’s then vice-president Joan Gaspart took his expiatory dip in the Thames after success at Wembley in 1992. If Guardiola developed a neurosis about the competition, though, he certainly wouldn’t have been alone in Barcelona.

He may have won the Champions League twice as a manager, but that sense of the competition working against him can never entirely go away. Look, for instance, at his exits in the seasons after Barcelona’s successes: in the second leg against Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in 2010 and in both legs against Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea in 2012, Barcelona was dominant to an extraordinary degree–and somehow went out.

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Since then, the setbacks have mounted up. His Bayern was picked off on the break by Real Madrid in 2014 after Guardiola allowed himself to be talked into changing his plan in the hours before kickoff. A year later, Bayern paid for a radical tactical gamble against Barcelona, then was unfortunate again in losing on away goals to Atletico in 2016. His Man City has gone out on away goals to Monaco in 2017, undone essentially by poor marking on a set play with 13 minutes remaining. Man City was broadly outgunned by Liverpool last season (although even then there was the disputed issue of Leroy Sane’s disallowed goal just before halftime in the second leg that would have reduced the deficit to 3-2) before Wednesday night’s extraordinary drama vs. Tottenham.

Again and again, the fine margins are going against Guardiola. Some of it, of course, is sheer bad luck. That happens in knockout competitions. Football is not controllable. If he were prone to self pity, and he does not seem to be, Guardiola may wonder why it was that opposing goalkeepers last season queued up to hand goals to Real Madrid (see Sven Ulreich in the semifinal and Loris Karius in the final).

Who knows what would have happened last season had Sane’s goal against Liverpool just before halftime in the second leg been allowed–as, if VAR were implemented at the time, it surely would have been?

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This season, VAR not merely denied him Raheem Sterling’s injury-time winner but also decided that Fernando Llorente’s goal could stand despite the ball brushing his arm before cannoning in off his hip. Oddly, referee Cuneyt Cakir seemed not to be shown the angle that made the flick off the arm most clear. While under the modern law he would probably still have allowed the goal, would it still count after the law change that will come into effect in June?

“A goal scored directly from the hand/arm (even if accidental) and a player scoring or creating a goal-scoring opportunity after having gained possession/control of the ball from their hand/arm (even if accidental),” IFAB, the international laws body, has said, “will no longer be allowed.” If Guardiola’s luck carries on like this, stand by for City being knocked out of next season’s quarterfinal after VAR reveals that Sane’s hangnail oscillated shortly before he volleyed what would have been a 98th-minute winner.

Guardiola, as it's played out, seems always to be a season too early behind the curve of technical development. So what is he to do? It’s easy to say that he must accept the revelation Sir Alex Ferguson had after Manchester United’s defeat to Real Madrid in the quarterfinal in 2000 and decide that it is safer to have fewer chances and deny your opponent any, but it’s when he tries to over-tinker and outthink what comes natural–the odd asymmetric midfield against Liverpool in the first leg last season, the omission of Kevin De Bruyne in the first leg last week–that it seems to go wrong.

It's little wonder he seems to have developed a complex about the competition and is constantly second-guessing himself.