The night after Manchester City won the title, those walking down King Street in the city center would have been surprised to see a casually dressed figure dining on the pedestrianized street with his friends.
Pep Guardiola made little effort to disguise his identity as he wears hooded tops on the sidelines and had his lid down very much on this occasion. Nor did he ask for a table that would protect him from the gaze of passers-by. He certainly could have done that, given that Tast is his restaurant, co-owned by Manchester City director Ferran Soriano and football director Txiki Begiristain.
Guardiola sat instead on the outer ring of the outdoor dining space, where any dumbfounded autograph hunter or benefactor – or even a bitter United fan, with a sharper tongue – could have stopped a few words. He got up to talk to friends he knew at other tables and left only because he wanted to see Chelsea’s match against Arsenal.
Pep Guardiola has a chance to win the prize for which he was hired: the Champions League
One down, one to go. This was a guy who hasn’t been in a club for more than three years, remember, burns out, needs to be recharged. He is now at the end of his fifth season in Manchester and has just signed a new contract. There is no sign that the Guardiola project is nearing its end.
On Saturday, Guardiola will try to achieve the victory in Porto that many will argue was the mission from day one. Manchester City: Champions of Europe.
The club denies this, denies its alleged obsession with becoming the continent’s number one team, denies that this was the main goal of achieving Guardiola. But it was.
The City Football Group with its global club network spanning the continents has always been intended to dominate. It would be incongruous if having the marquee club in the most prominent position in Europe wasn’t an outspoken goal.
He has always shown his dedication to the club and the city, and chefs Ferran Soriano (second left) and Txiki Begiristain (far right) have done their best to make him feel at home.
Then Guardiola’s own pride is at stake. This is his first Champions League final since leaving Barcelona, his first since the 3-1 win over Manchester United 10 years ago, which is still considered the pinnacle of his coaching career.
When he won on that occasion, the modern city still had to take their first Premier League era title. That they would recruit his generation’s coach to pilot that quest would have been considered almost fantastic at the time. The jibe is that Guardiola has never won in Europe without Lionel Messi. This is his chance.
When Soriano sat down with his friend to try and sell him the city’s ideal, Guardiola was very interested in the lifestyle that would await him if he devoted his professional talent to the club. He asked about the city, the area, where to live, the places to go. He specifically mentioned restaurants.
Yes, Soriano assured him, Manchester was full of nice restaurants, just the kind of places that Guardiola enjoyed. When the meeting was over, Soriano turned to Begiristain. “Right,” he said. “Now we have to open a restaurant.” Hence Tast which is otherwise excellent.
There is nothing to indicate that the Guardiola project is nearing its end after five years of Etihad
But it is also a symbol of City’s effort to make Guardiola feel at home. Likewise, a Catalan-Spanish restaurant shows Guardiola’s dedication to the city, capturing roots. He didn’t stay in a hotel like Jose Mourinho. He didn’t move to green Cheshire. Guardiola’s residence is located in the heart of the city.
And from the perspective of his rivals, it’s ominous when he talks about Manchester City right now. They thought they were rid of him at this point, that Manchester City would rethink another Manuel Pellegrini, perhaps Brendan Rodgers. Instead, Guardiola is left with a box of tricks full of false nines and full backs that aren’t quite, and designs on Erling Haaland or Harry Kane.
At Wembley in 2011 he talked about leaving Barcelona – ‘players get tired of the manager, the manager gets tired of the players’, he explained in the evening – but there is now no sign of such a worry.
“I have everything,” Guardiola said, “when asked the reason for this long life. ‘I can’t ask for more to do my job. They give the manager everything he needs. Investments, yes, I cannot deny – but not only that. I have friends above me.
He last won Europe’s top prize with Barcelona in 2011 – now the Spaniard can show he can win it without the help of Lionel Messi.
‘I’m comfortable with my staff, my backroom staff, it’s simple. We all share the mistakes and the good things together and when we lose they don’t say I’m responsible, they try to find the solution and how we can do better.
‘The players know that I am the manager because I have been supported by the chairman, the CEO, the sports director. There are five or six teams where they have top players. But at this club, even if we have to say goodbye, it will be in a good way.
‘I know if I don’t win I’ll get fired, but we’ll shake hands and stay friends. I’m incredibly comfortable with that. If the results are good, I will stay longer and longer. ‘
Chelsea, it’s fair to say, do things differently. Thomas Tuchel would be best advised not to make any long-term plans for dinner, let alone open a Bavarian themed restaurant.
While Guardiola has led three clubs, Chelsea has had 15 managers, including caretakers and interim managers, but this has also produced the most successful English club at the time. The year after Guardiola’s win at Wembley, Chelsea won the same trophy in Munich. Within six months, the manager who did so, Roberto Di Matteo, was fired.
His long-term project at City is not something Chelsea are used to, having brought Thomas Tuchel mid-season to get immediate results.
Still, it somehow works. Chelsea threw another manager overboard mid-season and cashed in on the club in the form that brought them here, on the banks of the Douro River, once again mining the prospects of incredible success in the midst of the chaos. They start out as underdogs, despite beating Manchester City under Tuchel in their two previous encounters.
Much of that is due to their low-scoring forwards. These are the two tightest defenses in the league, chances are. How many chances will Chelsea get? And how much do they need to score?
“Preparing a team isn’t about pretending to know what’s going to happen,” said Tuchel. ‘It’s not about predictions. I try to encourage and prepare everyone for opportunities. We don’t want to put on overly excited, but I’m also telling them not to be under-excited because you can be too cool.
Tuchel has already made the most of Guardiola, but the City boss will have some tricks up his sleeve
‘This is not a normal week. It is special. You can be nervous, you can use that pressure. I will tell them, let’s be who we are, because we are a strong group when we do things together.
‘Manchester City is the benchmark we know, the best team in Europe. But you can always close the gap in such a team. We must be courageous, courageous, suffer together, have a strong faith, a strong quality. We have to show up every minute. ‘
Easier said than done, of course. Tuchel has beaten Manchester City twice this season, but he did not play against Manchester City. The false nine best XI Manchester City who has performed so consistently in Europe this season without the tinkering that has undermined so many previous campaigns.
Guardiola is known for his ‘tinkerman’ qualities, but he is expected to hold on to his guns as he bids to serve the European crown
For once, few expect Guardiola to have a trick up his sleeve. His selections in Europe this season have been largely consistent and Tuchel’s biggest headache will prevent Chelsea from being flooded in midfield as the three of them start looking for a body to mark.
This will be the third full English Champions League final in 14 years and, as often happens when two teams from the same country meet, the last two were not exactly a match to remember. Teams that know each other well know how to dissolve each other.
In Porto, a city known for its tripe, it is hoped that Manchester City and Chelsea will deliver better rates than that. Maybe Guardiola will even put it on his menu if he wins.