Pep Guardiola is Real Madrid’s antithesis, Public Enemy No 1 to Europe’s most illustrious club. Growing up as a Catalan and as a supporter of Catalan independence, the City manager was taught from an early age to despise Madrid – the club of the Spanish republic.
This hatred manifested itself during his playing days as a Barcelona midfielder and intensified into his coaching career, as Barcelona manager.
The relationship between coach and rival club grew most bitter during chief antagonist Jose Mourinho’s typically antagonistic tenure as Madrid boss.
A war of words during a bitter struggle for dominance in La Liga spilled out onto the touchline. During a spell of four El Clasicos in three weeks in the 2010/11 campaign, familiarity bred contempt and it got decidedly ugly. Marcelo’s late challenge on Cesc Fabregas sparked a touchline fracas that saw Mourinho gouge the eye of Guardiola’s assistant, the late Tito Villanova.
For the most part, Guardiola has had the last laugh. The City boss has won nine, drawn four and lost four of his 17 career clashes with Real Madrid.
Guardiola defeated Madrid over two legs in the 2010/11 semi-finals, thrashed them 6-2 at the Bernabeu and 5-0 at Camp Nou in La Liga and became the first Barcelona coach ever to win four consecutive El Clasicos against their hated rivals.
Yet the defeats have been painful. Notably the Copa del Rey final loss in 2011 and the 2-1 reverse at the Camp Nou in La Liga, both secured by Cristiano Ronaldo winners.
And in his only clash with Los Blancos since leaving Barcelona, Guardiola’s Bayern Munich were savaged 5-0 on aggregate in the 2013/14 Champions League semi-finals including a 4-0 home defeat at the hands of Madrid.
It was the first of three straight Champions League exits at the hands of Spanish opposition for Guardiola’s Bayern. Spanish newspaper Marca, whose ties to Madrid are well known, toasted the result doubly as a victory for Real and a victory over a Guardiola side.
Guardiola is often respectful of Madrid when asked to discuss them in press conferences. Over the years he’s admitted they are a “great team with or without Ronaldo” and said you “have to take your hat off to them… they are something special”.
Yet it remains clear that he regards them with distaste, as the team of the established hierarchy. “I wish we could play more often against Madrid,” he said during his spell in Spain. “We would talk about football and its virtues. We play against the most powerful team in every respect.”
Tellingly when asked for his three best teams of the decade last season, Guardiola named Barcelona, Bayern and Juventus and chose to ignore Madrid – who’d just won three straight Champions League titles and four in the past five seasons.
It’s not so much that he dislikes Madrid, it’s more that he flatly fails to acknowledge their achievements. “Signing for them would be absurd,” he once said. “It’s countercultural”.
Naturally Guardiola reserves a special place in his heart for wins over Madrid. “Beating them fills me with happiness,” he says. And after the Camp Nou rout: “Beating Real Madrid 5-0 is fun”.
With City meekly surrendering the Premier League title to runaway leaders Liverpool, the Champions League takes on an added importance.
Even if Guardiola publicly insists winning Europe’s top title is not the priority and not the reason he was brought to Manchester, it has to be his focus now.
City’s most fruitful European campaign came in 2015/16 when a semi-final run ended at the hands of Real. Manuel Pellegrini’s men failed to lay a glove on the Spaniards and were ushered out 1-0 on aggregate in one of the poorest Champions League semi-finals in recent memory.
In his three seasons at City, Guardiola has reached the quarter-finals twice and the last 16 once.
In 2016/17 City were dumped out by Monaco on away goals after a 3-1 second-leg collapse in the principality, in 2017/18 they fell to a fast start from Liverpool and in 2018/19 they suffered the first true VAR heartbreak, denied a last-minute winner as they were dumped out by Tottenham.
Despite their many billions, Guardiola chooses to paint City as outsiders to the Champions League, as the new boys bidding to mix it with the competition’s heavyweights.
Comparing his former side to his current one, Guardiola said at the start of the campaign: “Barcelona were born a long, long time ago and they’ve been in the Champions League in every season since. Here, at City, we have been here for just a short while.”
When this season's last-16 draw was confirmed, the 49-year-old used the same tactic. "It's an incredible test for us. [Real Madrid are] the kings of this competition," Guardiola said. "We will prepare as best as possible in the two months and try to play a good two games."
But rather than fostering an underdog mentality, all Guardiola has succeeded in doing is create an inferiority complex at the Etihad. City's home crowd already treat the competition with suspicion over UEFA’s punishment for their Financial Fair Play breach a few seasons ago.
For Guardiola personally, winning the competition without Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta and without Barcelona, has become pivotal to his legacy. A third title would see him become the joint-most successful coach in European Cup history.
First though, he must do something he’s also never managed without them. Beat Madrid.
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