Every year when the final weeks of the season roll around, players and managers still involved in title battles and the latter stages of competitions are asked the same thing: would you rather win the league title or the Champions League?
During his six seasons as Manchester City manager, it’s a question that Pep Guardiola has never really been able to escape. The Catalan’s love affair with Europe’s premier club competition is no secret; he was a key member of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘dream team’ that won the European Cup for the first time in the club’s history.
In 2009 Guardiola led Barcelona to victory in Rome, this time as manager, becoming only the sixth person in history to win the men’s competition as both a player and manager. Two years later he won it again, managing arguably the greatest club side in the history of the game.
It’s now been 11 years since Guardiola lifted the famous trophy, having failed to win the Champions League with either Bayern Munich or City. Claims that City only hired Guardiola in an attempt to win the competition are wrong, but there is no doubt that both club and coach are desperate to do so.
Regardless, Guardiola’s tenure at the Etihad has been a roaring success. He has guided the Blues to three Premier League titles – if everything goes to plan on Sunday it will be four – four League Cups, one FA Cup and a maiden Champions League final. A peculiarity of Guardiola’s City is that every year they seem to find increasingly traumatic ways of failing in the Champions League, this season’s semi-final collapse in Madrid one of the worst.
If some people’s minds, rare slip-ups like that render City’s season a failure. But with City on the verge of clinching a fourth league title in five seasons, is it right that an achievement as impressive as winning a gruelling 38-game campaign be overshadowed by the ‘failure’ to win absolutely every piece of silverware on offer?
Speaking ahead of City’s match against Aston Villa on Sunday – a win from which will secure the title – Guardiola was asked about why he values the Premier League over the Champions League. “Because it’s more difficult,” he said. “A lot of weeks, a lot of games struggling with injuries, good and bad moments, different situations. The success is being there in the last few years.”
Critics will say it’s easy to say you prefer the thing you’re good at as opposed to the thing you’re not (although three winners’ medals is hardly bad, is it?) but an important message that can be taken from Guardiola is that in life the most important thing is to enjoy oneself. It’s simply not healthy to overlook what you have achieved by focusing on what you don’t have.
“When you fight the Premier League it gives the sense you enjoy the locker room. We are happier in our lives, when you win and win it makes good training and environment. It’s not just one single game like the FA Cup, it’s a consistent team. You want to change different things, experiences. In terms of the Premier League, it’s more every day, it’s nice.”
Guardiola wasn’t saying that to excuse City’s shortcomings in Europe either. “I’m not saying that the Champions League is not important. We’d love to be in Paris next week. Always to win 38 games, or six or seven games is different. Always I like it, it’s nice. We are close.”
City will one day win the Champions League, and when it happens it will be a great moment for the players and fans. But until then, it’s important not to lose sight of what this team has and is achieving.
Success isn’t defined solely in terms of which trophies you do or don’t win – as Guardiola said, it’s about working hard over months and months, improving and enjoying a day-to-day process.