Pep Guardiola’s legacy is at the mercy of Champions League

Bayern Munich’s average result at home this season is a 3-0 victory (well, 3.1-0.3). In 19 games at the Allianz Arena, the German champions have kept 14 clean sheets, though many of those have come against teams that can’t rival FC Porto, Bayern’s UEFA Champions League opposition on Tuesday. Restrict the field to Germany’s top half and Bayern’s Champions League home games, and FCB is still outscoring its opponents by two goals per game (2.6-0.5), having yet to concede at home in this year’s Champions League. The 3-1 deficit it carries back from the first leg in Porto? Recent history says it’s manageable.

The danger comes if Porto does manage a goal. Then, thanks to the value of that away goal, Bayern needs three to tie and four to go through. Perhaps as important, the team would then need a game that transcends that two-goal edge it can comfortably keep at home.

With the margins so thin, every set piece is vital. Every tackle in the box has to be perfect. Every time the back line’s abandoned, it has to perform. Fail to do that, and Bayern, one of the favorites coming into this competition, crashes out of Champions League.

“The game is a big challenge,” Bayern head coach Pep Guardiola conceded at yesterday’s pre-match press conference, “but when you’re coach of a club like Bayern every day is a challenge.”

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It would be the biggest upset of this year’s tournament, one that was unfathomable when the quarterfinal draw happened four weeks ago. Porto looked like a sacrificial lamb, not only because of its opponent but because of the quality of its squad. This is not the strongest team Porto’s taken into recent Champions Leagues. Instead of a team in firm control of Portugal’s league (as it was three years ago), Porto’s in a mild transition, moving from the stellar team that won the Liga Sagres by 21 points three years ago to another potentially dynastic group. For a team currently chasing Benfica in Portugal, the Champions League semifinals would be a shock.

Yet thanks to its surprise triumph last Wednesday at the Estadio Dragao, Julen Lopetegui’s team has a chance to accelerate its ascent. Knocking out Bayern would not only make a quick name for the impressive neophyte in Porto’s dugout but also shine brighter lights on potential sellables like Jackson Martínez and Héctor Herrera. Loanees like Cristian Tello and Ólivier Torres could use the performance to boost their stocks back in Spain. This could be a result that catapults careers.

But the effect could be the opposite for another Spaniard, the man who many consider to be the best coach in the world. Lose to Porto, and it becomes difficult for Guardiola to justify that label. Guardiola’s renown is built on how he won his two Champions Leagues with Barcelona, but if he fails to reach a final for the second year in a row, the question will be amplified: Why has the 2013 European champion Guardiola inherited failed to replicate that result?

It was always a ridiculously high, if ultimately fair, standard. Guardiola had been selected to bring in a style that would move Bayern to the forefront of the world’s game. If that meant an adjustment period after Jupp Heynckes won the Champions League, it was a reasonable cost; at least, it was more reasonable than expecting to win the Champions League every season. Having lost in two of the previous three finals, Bayern knew the thin margins between glory and regret.

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What was unanticipated, however, was the manner in which Bayern would exit last year’s tournament. A semifinal defeat would have been disappointing, regardless, but losing by five goals over two legs to Real Madrid was a shock. The Merengues would go on to win their 10th title, but it’s difficult to argue the Spanish titans were, at their core, five goals better than the Bavarians. Guardiola shouldered much of the blame.

“When you are trainer of a club like Bayern, you know how things are,” Guardiola explains. “If you win you are a genius, if you lose there will be lots of criticism. This is part of the job.”

Results in league and the domestic cup remain stellar. Guardiola has yet to be derailed in either, even if Bayern needed penalty kicks to eliminate Bayer Leverkusen in the last round of the Pokal. The team has only lost four times in 63 league games since Guardiola signed on, and its 36 league goals allowed are 29 fewer than any other team in the Bundesliga. As teams continue to adopt increasingly asymmetrical approaches, Bayern’s games seem less an exercise in modern soccer than a test of the sport’s theoretical limits. The lack of balance in opponent’s plans is replaced by the risks Guardiola has to take to exploit conservative foes.

That partially explains the brilliant defensive record, as does Bayern’s stifling possession (the team keeps 70 percent of the ball in league games). The lack of another true superpower in Germany is also a factor, as is the continued evolution of a scheme that’s evolved from Dutch pioneer Rinus Michaels, Italian master Arrigo Sacchi, and an Argentine tactician, Marcelo Bielsa. You can see elements of each in every Bayern game, just as you can see most teams struggle to come up with a true countermeasure.

Porto, however, was able to do what we saw from Jurgen Klopp’s best Dortmund teams, only with Guardiola’s teams evolving to play higher and higher up the field, the pressure the Dragons exerted against Bayern’s defenders carried more risk and reward. Add in injuries to the likes of Arjen Robben, David Alaba, Javi Martínez, Mehdi Benatia, and Bastian Schweinsteiger, a purposely shallow squad, and dips in form from stalwarts like Xabi Alonso, and your team becomes a sitting duck. The weaknesses are too easy too pick out; a hamstrung squad offers few solutions.

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Guardiola accepts such circumstances as part of the job. He seems aware that wobbles in Champions League will lead to doubts. If European success has become a bottom line for Bayern, the uncertainties don’t seem to be influencing Guardiola’s approach.

“I am very satisfied being coach of this club,” he maintains, seemingly understanding why his place at Bayern is the subject of concern. His contract only runs through next season, and the trophy he was brought in to secure may remain elusive.

“Even with all the problems we have, we are in the semifinals of the German Cup, we will probably retain the German title, and we are still in the running in the Champions League. But I know the club I am working for. It is like in Barcelona or Madrid – only the treble is enough.

When individual errors cost Bayern in Portugal, the risks of the Champions League format began playing out. It’s not a league season where the improbabilities of one result get offset against a 34- or 38-game schedule. One outlying performance in the knockout rounds can either see you out of the tournament or set you up for a second, stranger game, with opponents having an incentive to adopt even more imbalanced approaches. As Guardiola found out at Barcelona when his team was eliminated by Inter in 2010, all it takes is that one bad stretch to derail an entire tournament. It doesn’t even have to last 90 minutes.

In that sense, it seems unfair to judge any man against the challenges of Champions League. Over the course of seven games, from the Round of 16 to the final, that bad game is more likely to happen than not. Against the best teams in the world, it’s unreasonable to expect seven straight stellar performances, and given the level of competition increases as the competition continues, your bad game is more likely to happen when the stakes matter more.

If the one in your 6-1 stretch comes against José Mourinho’s Inter or Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid, you’re done. You become a sacrifice on the altar of variance; a casualty to probability as much as the matchup itself.

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Perhaps that explains why only two men have won more Champions Leagues than Guardiola: Carlo Ancelotti (above, right) and Bob Paisley. But it also provides an argument as to why, given his young age, the teams he’ll manage and his obvious quality, Guardiola seems destined to catch and perhaps pass them. Like Mourinho, though – whose seven semifinals show both his prodigious talent and the long odds of the tournament — he may have to wait it out. After all, the partial list of coaches stuck on two European titles is as telling as it is precautionary: Alex Ferguson, Miguel Muñoz, Ottmar Hitzfeld, Helenio Herrera, Vicente del Bosque, Brian Clough, Béla Guttman, as well as Mourinho and Sacchi.

Those aren’t the names that will come to fans’ minds if Guardiola falls short. Instead, it’ll be another two-time winner, Heynckes, who left Guardiola a title-winning team. Be it in this round or the next, if Guardiola falls short, he’ll inevitably be questioned as to whether his philosophy of precision can capture titles without surgeons like Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández, and Andrés Iniesta. And, perhaps unfairly, he’ll be asked whether the project he inherited two years ago has made any progress since Heynckes left Säbener Straße.


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