Neil Humphreys: Why Europe can save Pep's season
Champions League success may convince Manchester City manager to stay
By the law of averages, Pep Guardiola should be off at the end of this season.
Through his stellar managerial career, the Spaniard has developed an uncanny knack of leaving just before the party ends.
|DINAMO ZAGREB||MAN CITY|
At Manchester City, there's a creeping sense that the champagne corks have all been popped and the fizz is turning flat.
Only the Champions League may prevent Guardiola from reaching for his coat and slipping through the exit.
City are already through to the knockout stages, but the trip to Dinamo Zagreb tomorrow morning (Singapore time) is not just a dead rubber. It's an opportunity to keep alive the enthusiasm of a restless manager.
Guardiola doesn't do long goodbyes. He sees the end of a cycle coming and gets out of the way before the wheels fall off.
Cynics among the City faithful suspect Guardiola has already spotted the beginning of the end at the Manchester Derby, where the champions were outplayed and worryingly outfought.
A subtle shift in ambition, from the English Premier League to the Champions League, is understandable and perhaps a smart reading of Guardiola's history.
His fourth and final season at Barcelona was the only campaign that didn't end with a La Liga triumph.
His last season at Bayern Munich contrasted with his first, during which he led them to the Bundesliga title, German Cup, Uefa Super Cup and Fifa Club World Cup.
His fourth season at City could also be his least successful.
There has never been a fifth season, at any of Guardiola's clubs.
He's not facing a crisis, just as he wasn't facing a crisis at the end of his cycle at Bayern Munich and Barcelona. But he still left both clubs.
Guardiola built three great sides in three different countries. But he hasn't rebuilt a side once.
If he intends to give it a go for the first time at City, then a Champions League win is probably the only carrot that will delay one of his popular sabbaticals.
It's easy to be cynical, but Guardiola's understanding of the game's tactical evolution and the nature of most dressing rooms explain his restlessness.
Managers of his generation do not rebuild sides. They are not afforded the time or the resources, not indefinitely anyway.
Moreover, modern coaches favour a relentless, pressing game that doesn't lend itself to longevity beyond three or four seasons, as Mauricio Pochettino learned the hard way at Tottenham Hotspur.
Even Juergen Klopp has acknowledged that his automatons at Borussia Dortmund ran out of steam, which convinced him to tweak his approach at Liverpool by shoring up the defence.
Of late, the German has even championed direct passes from central defence to his front three - a slicker version of Wimbledon's Crazy Gang - to save energy.
But Guardiola's mavericks are ageing and slowing, if the Manchester Derby was any indication, intensity cannot be sustained forever. Indeed, Guardiola deserves every plaudit for stretching that fast and furious creativity across two seasons.
Still, City's pressing has lacked urgency this time around, falling behind both Liverpool and Leicester City.
Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero's injuries haven't helped, forcing Bernardo Silva out wide and occasionally leaving Gabriel Jesus isolated.
And, when United embarked upon their attacking blitz in the derby, the lack of leadership among the champions was alarming. Vincent Kompany has never been more missed.
Roy Keane, arguably the only EPL skipper to lead a club through different, title-winning cycles, continues to emphasise that the second trophy is tougher than the first, and the third is harder than the second and so on.
Leaders build momentum. Great leaders maintain it. City appear to have neither.
The most worrying aspect of the derby defeat was a lack of creative direction on both sides of the white line. Guardiola failed to alter the game's complexion. Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Guendogan were hardly inspired introductions.
Even the manager looks tired and his men are certainly weary.
No decent cover in central defence only adds to the pressure on Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and Fernandinho. None of them are speedsters.
Sane's absence pushes Silva to the left, which reduces City's midfield options and denies Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva sufficient rest.
Klopp's rotating ingenuity is noted for its absence at the Etihad.
Guardiola doesn't have the same options (which is extraordinary considering the club's expenditure).What he does have is the Champions League and a chance to tinker and experiment in Zagreb.
It's a timely straw to clutch.
A triumphant European crusade won't extend the life cycle of the current squad, but the trophy might encourage Guardiola to stay and build a new one.