MARTIN SAMUEL: Lifting Man City is Pep's biggest career test

MARTIN SAMUEL: Lifting Manchester City off the floor after Champions League ruin against Real Madrid will be the biggest test of Pep Guardiola’s CAREER… while Chelsea farce shows this Government cannot be trusted

  • Pep Guardiola faces a huge challenge to lift his Manchester City players now 
  • City were dramatically dumped out of the Champions League by Real Madrid 
  • But Pep’s side are back in action on Sunday in their Premier League title bid
  • Elsewhere, the current government have grossly mismanaged the Chelsea sale
  • And if regulation is not working in energy or water, why would it work in football?

One or two days to recover, said Pep Guardiola. It seemed very optimistic, after such an ordeal. 

Guardiola must hope his team can pick themselves up to go again, but in reality he faces arguably the biggest challenge of his managerial career galvanising Manchester City for Sunday.

Newcastle are the opposition. A test, on current form. Then it is Wolves, on Wednesday. Tricky, Wolves. Since 2017-18, City’s record against them is played eight, won five, lost two, drawn one.

There are not many teams City have failed to beat in almost half their recent meetings. Across the same period, City’s record versus Arsenal is played 13, won 12.

And as we are often reminded, there are no easy games in the Premier League. Certainly, there are no easy games when a team has just had its heart ripped out by Real Madrid.

It is not just the energy City expounded in the Bernabeu Stadium that may affect them, but the emotion.

Pep Guardiola faces the toughest challenge of his career in lifting Manchester City off the floor

City stars were devastated after being knocked out of the Champions League by Real Madrid

But with a Premier League title on the line, Guardiola has to get his players emotionally ready

Guardiola must fear that some of his players won’t be able to blithely shrug off their colossal disappointment and regroup for the trophy that remains. 

Might Madrid, in securing their place in the Champions League final, have also gifted the Premier League title to the team they will face that day, Liverpool?

Jurgen Klopp has achieved much in his life. Arguably his greatest triumph, though, was cajoling his Liverpool players to maintain their ferocious intensity the year after losing the title by a single point to City. Liverpool lost one game and came second. 

They had the league’s best defence and scored 89 goals. Their 97 points would have won the league in any other season, bar two. 

Yet Klopp not only drove his team to win the Champions League that year, he took them into a successful tilt at the title the following season.

That is the test for Guardiola now. Can he pick his players up from what must be a new low to close out the title race? This is not like last season’s Champions League final defeat. 

One of Andy Murray’s best qualities was not resenting being in the same era as the ‘Big Three’

Others, like French player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (left) did not view things the same way as Murray

They do not have a summer to rationalise, to absorb the pain. They landed in Manchester in the small hours of Thursday morning, they will have returned to training on Friday at the latest. There is little time to process.

And it is painful, a loss of this nature. It requires formidable strength of character. One of Andy Murray’s greatest qualities was not resenting being born into the same era as Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. 

Murray never contemplated what he might have won with more fortuitous timing. He remained undaunted by the daily challenge. The way he saw it, he couldn’t change his circumstances, and competing with three of the greatest tennis players ever brought out the best in him.

It was not the same for others. ‘It’s tough to get a reward when you play with those guys,’ said Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who rose to the rank of No 5, but no higher. ‘I work hard every week. I give a lot of myself every day. I never get rewards.’

Equally, while there are many mitigations for the rapid decline of golfer David Duval — he won the 2001 Open, but never again after that, and lost his tour card in 2011. 

But beside the injuries and personal problems, it is a fact he came along at the same time as Tiger Woods and spent a crushing amount of time playing well and missing out. He shot 14 under at the Masters in 2001, a score that would have won the tournament in any year but eight, and lost by two shots to Woods.

Lewis Hamilton’s struggles at Mercedes could be down to struggling to get over the trauma of last year’s title being snatched from him by the rogue decisions of race director Michael Masi

Even the greatest can be affected by the pain of defeat. Lewis Hamilton has a rotten car this year and Mercedes cannot compete. Yet he is also struggling against team-mate George Russell. 

Might it be that he is still pining, wrestling with the anguish of having a record eighth drivers’ championship stolen from him by the rogue decisions of race director Michael Masi?

It has been wondered how affected Guardiola must be by his recent Champions League disappointments, but the more acute problem is his players in the here and now. 

By the time City play Newcastle they could again trail Liverpool by two points, if Klopp’s men beat Tottenham at Anfield. Last weekend, faced with a similar challenge, City swept Leeds aside with confidence. But that was before this crushing reversal.

Sitting in the Bernabeu on Wednesday, Guardiola reflected that Madrid’s experience had counted most. ‘They had been through this, we hadn’t,’ he said. Yet the same is true of Sunday’s fixture. 

It is almost not Newcastle that Guardiola has to worry about. He has 72 hours to get Madrid out of his players’ systems, or risk losing much more than one match.

Real Madrid’s supposed ownership of the Champions League is in its way a self-fulfilling prophecy. Casemiro could easily have been dismissed in the first half against Manchester City for two cynical fouls on Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden. 

We can argue that if he was booked for one, he might not have made the other, but the fact is he wasn’t shown a yellow card for either. 

Referee Daniele Orsato seemed intimidated by the Bernabeu and the fame of the team he was handling. Well, one of them at least.

He wasn’t the reason Madrid won, but he certainly helped. 

Referee Daniele Orsato (above left) was overawed and ultimately helped Real Madrid progress

Incredibly, Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ shirt sold for £7.1m at Sotheby’s. Less surprisingly, a delegation from Argentina turned up prior to the auction claiming ownership. 

The shirt was put up by Steve Hodge, the former England player who was lucky enough to swap with Maradona at the end. Initially, Maradona’s family tried to claim his possession wasn’t authentic. 

Now, the Argentinian football federation speaks of it like the Elgin marbles, as if it was plundered, not exchanged by two competitors after a match. 

The Argentina FA’s actions over Diego Maradona’s £7m shirt (above) are typical but saddening

‘He is selling something that belongs to Maradona and the AFA without authorisation,’ a member of the delegation said. ‘It should be in Argentina in order all Argentines can enjoy it.’

Yet it was on display in the National Football Museum for many years, during which time Argentina could have made their claim, or asked for it to make a visit to Buenos Aires. Now there’s money to be made, they’re keen.

It seems sadly typical of the way Maradona’s talent was manipulated throughout his life.

Mitrovic isn’t a top-tier striker 

It has been a stunning end to the season for Aleksandar Mitrovic. He has 43 goals for Fulham now, breaking the Championship record. He will arrive in the Premier League brimming with confidence.

Yet a look at the Championship’s most prolific names is not encouraging. Mitrovic beat a record held by Guy Whittingham. A lot of unspectacular strikers were monsters in the league below.

Aleksandar Mitrovic scored for fun in the second tier but needs to step up to keep Fulham up

In Mitrovic’s last Premier League season, he scored three in 27 appearances. Only once has he reached double figures, getting 11 for Fulham across 37 games in 2018-19. It still wasn’t enough to keep them up. 

In 104 Premier League appearances, Mitrovic has 24 goals. A goal every four games, give or take, is less than Fulham will require. If they are to survive, he needs to step up. Given the season he’s just had, it’s now or never.

United don’t owe Lingard a send-off 

There are many things wrong with Manchester United. The failure to allow Jesse Lingard a send-off is not among them. 

He played, he was well-rewarded for it, but this season hasn’t worked out for him. He wouldn’t have got a send-off in January, either, when he was anxious to leave for Newcastle. He didn’t seem to mind then.

Lingard’s great love is United and he made a mistake not leaving last summer, following a strong loan spell at West Ham. He said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer misled him over first-team opportunities but his fortunes did not improve under Ralf Rangnick, either.

Manchester United do not owe Jesse Lingard a send-off, despite brother Louie Scott’s claims

So he can’t have been hitting them in the eye in training. United are not playing so well that they can leave form on the bench.

Lingard will have offers and no doubt good ones. There is undoubtedly a player in there and he was unlucky not to make Gareth Southgate’s squad for the Euro 2020. West Ham even kept cash in reserve in the hope his deal could be made permanent, without success.

In many ways, for all his love for United, West Ham was where he played his best football in recent years.

After that it would be with England around the time of the 2018 World Cup. A big United send-off would have been forced sentimentality, and little more.

Blues farce shows this government cannot be trusted

Less than a year ago, Chelsea were the champions of Europe. It needed superhuman mismanagement to steer them to the brink of extinction within a matter of weeks, but this Government has delivered it.

Having assumed stewardship in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, their foolish deadlines and absence of acumen risk taking the most successful club of the last decade – two league titles, two Champions Leagues, two Europa Leagues, two FA Cups, a League Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup – out of existence.

Sports minister Nigel Huddleston is one of those to spectacularly mismanage the Chelsea sale

Impressive. Takes some doing. Even Bury weren’t wiped off the face of the earth. And this is Chelsea. Their name alone is a licence to print money. 

Yet, having failed to come up with so much as a means of selling match tickets to fill Stamford Bridge, the Government are now talking as if the future of the club is in genuine doubt: 117 years of history, gone.

Still, to make their poor case for regulation, the same politicians will pontificate about clubs like Bury who unsurprisingly struggled in an area of the country that houses Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton. 

Yet if they can’t manage Chelsea, how could their regulatory appointees be trusted with the running of clubs down the pyramid, where skilled financial management is key?

Nigel Huddleston, the sports minister, encapsulates the intellectual shortcomings. Remember last week when he talked about seizing £1billion from Premier League clubs, if they couldn’t reach agreement on providing extra funds for the EFL?

Think about that negotiation now. Having told the EFL they will be gifted £1bn if no deal is struck, what motivation is there for Rick Parry to reach an agreement? It would be like a divorcing couple haggling over the house. The judge steps in and says that, unless they come to a settlement, he’s going to give it to the wife.

That’s the end of the negotiation, isn’t it? Why would she seek a parlayed outcome now? Do nothing and she’s getting the house. She has a vested interest in there being no resolution. So do the EFL, thanks to Huddleston.

This is an example of the ministerial brains that have been brought to bear on Chelsea. No wonder they’re in trouble. 

Regulation isn’t working anyway 

And while we’re on the subject of government regulation for football, one of the arguments most regularly advanced is that it happens in other industries. Indeed it does. And how’s that going? 

Ofwat, for instance, regulate water services in England and Wales and are looking at potential legal action after failing to stop untreated sewage being discharged into rivers by water companies. 

Environment Agency data shows that these businesses spewed raw sewage into rivers and seas for more than 2.7m hours in 2021, in 372,533 incidents. 

Equally, how are your energy bills working out under the supervision of Ofgem, which allowed 26 retail energy companies to collapse in a three month period in 2021? 

As a result of Ofgem price cap increases some household bills have risen by as much as £2,000 annually. Another triumph for regulation. Why would football’s new bosses be so different? 

If the government knew lots of really smart people just itching to be regulators, surely they’d be using them already and we wouldn’t have a cost of living crisis, an energy crisis and be up s*** creek without a paddle? 

Government regulation in energy has led to an energy crisis – so why would it work in football? 

A further thought on the future of Declan Rice or any young international footballer in World Cup year. 

The European fixture list breaks mid-season to accommodate Qatar 2022. That is a first. It has never been more important, then, to be playing regular top-division football than in 2022-23.

A move to a club where a coach like Pep Guardiola favours time to adapt and might not guarantee a starting place early on could have consequences. Equally, a club like Manchester United with all its attendant dramas and flaws might be a risk. 

This could be the first year that the smart advice is to let the summer go by, and move in January once the dust has settled. 

Declan Rice (left) may be well advised to avoid moving clubs until after the Qatar World Cup

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