Manchester City players warm up during a training session ahead of their Champions League match against Shakhtar Donetsk. AP
After a series of painful Champions League failures, Pep Guardiola is on a mission to seal his Manchester City legacy by finally getting his hands on the trophy again.
City start their latest bid to win the club’s first European Cup with a trip to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Group C opener on Wednesday.
The long flight to the Ukraine will give Guardiola plenty of time to ponder his curious streak of Champions League flops in recent years.
Guardiola has conquered English football spectacularly after winning the last two Premier League titles, the first in record-breaking fashion and the second as part of an unprecedented domestic treble last season.
Yet the Champions League has proved impossible for Guardiola to master since he arrived at the Etihad Stadium.
In fact, Europe’s elite club competition has been a cruel ground for Guardiola for most of the last decade, with a series of frustrating exits during his spells in charge of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City. Guardiola first won the Champions League as a manager in 2009 with Barcelona.
But he has failed to reach the semi-finals in any of his three seasons as City boss, extending his long wait to win the tournament for the third time –– his second triumph coming with Barca in 2011.
City’s best Champions League run was under Guardiola’s predecessor Manuel Pellegrini, who made the semi-finals in the last season before the Spaniard took over.
And Guardiola’s inability to win the Champions League without Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi in his team is a black mark his critics use to question the 48-year-old’s right to be ranked as a managerial legend.
While that assessment is harsh on the innovative and inspirational Guardiola, his European campaigns with City have undoubtedly been painful experiences that exposed the few flaws in his team.
VAR was the scapegoat for last season’s dramatic quarter-final defeat against Tottenham, but the real reasons for City’s failure to progress were a subdued first leg performance in north London and a defensive meltdown in the second leg.
The year before that Liverpool punished City’s oddly timid display quarter-final display at Anfield, while Monaco shockingly eliminated Guardiola’s side after an error-prone last 16 tie in his first season.
With five Champions League semi-final defeats on his CV -- two with Barca and three with Bayern -- Guardiola has become the competition’s nearly-man since 2011, when his Messi-inspired team delivered a masterclass in the Wembley final against Manchester United.
Meanwhile, as Bayern Munich launch their Champions League campaign against Red Star Belgrade on Wednesday night, Bavarian hopes of reclaiming European club football’s top prize rest to a large extent on the shoulders of Philippe Coutinho.
Following seven semi-final appearances in the last decade, the former Liverpool midfielder has been hailed as the man who can take Bayern the extra step in European football’s flagship competition this season.
Last season’s defeat to Liverpool in the last 16 sparked fears that Bayern’s Champions League aura was fading.
The departure of veteran stars such as Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben seemed to confirm the end of an era, but Coutinho’s arrival on loan from Barcelona has prompted fresh hope that Bayern can be restored as one of the continent’s most feared sides.
Elsewhere, the visit of Real Madrid to the French capital on Wednesday means a glamour tie for Paris Saint-Germain to begin their Champions League campaign but a meeting with the Spanish side also brings back unhappy memories.
When the clubs last met in Europe two seasons ago, a PSG side missing an injured Neymar were dumped out in the last 16.
That was one of three consecutive exits in the first knockout round for PSG, who have failed to make their mark on the Champions League despite all the money spent by their Qatari owners.
So the inevitable question at the start of another continental campaign is can Thomas Tuchel’s team this time at least reach a semi-final in Europe’s elite club competition? Last season it was Manchester United who embarrassed PSG. Since 2012 the only teams PSG have beaten in a Champions League knockout tie are Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen and Chelsea.
Guardiola accused Arsenal and other Premier League rivals of “whispering” – colluding behind City’s back to ensure that their ban for alleged breaches of Financial Fair Play would be upheld.
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