By Martyn Herman
(Reuters) – When Pep Guardiola was lured to Manchester City in 2016 the club’s Abu Dhabi owners did so convinced the Spaniard was the man to lead them to Champions League glory.
Three seasons in and they are still waiting to conquer Europe but what the 48-year-old has achieved in claiming back-to-back Premier League titles is arguably a greater achievement.
Guardiola was not mortified by an agonising Champions League quarter-final defeat by Tottenham Hotspur which stopped City’s pursuit of an unprecedented quadruple in its tracks.
But if consolation was needed, it came with his side prevailing on Sunday in one of the most intense and unforgiving title races ever seen in England, or indeed anywhere in Europe.
Guardiola set new standards of excellence when, in his second season at City, he took them to the Premier League crown last year in record-breaking fashion, with his side earning 100 points and scoring 106 goals to obliterate their rivals.
As impressive as that was, however, Guardiola’s follow-up season will give him more satisfaction after City edged out Liverpool by 98 points to 97 — the second and third largest points hauls in the Premier League era.
Not only that, but when City hosted Liverpool in the first week of January they knew defeat would have left them 10 points adrift of Juergen Klopp’s relentless side.
City triumphed 2-1 that day, then won 16 of their last 17 league games, including all of the last 14, to become the first club to retain the Premier League title for 10 years.
However, while City still banged in 95 goals and produced displays of pure fantasy football, this title — Guardiola’s eighth after three La Liga and three Bundesliga crowns with Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively — was as much about sheer persistence and handling pressure.
Liverpool’s nine-match winning finish to the season often saw them lead City in the table, courtesy of differing kick-off times. But every time Klopp’s side posed the question, Guardiola’s men had the answer.
Before Sunday’s 4-1 title-sealing stroll at Brighton & Hove Albion, City won three of their four previous league games 1-0.
When Brighton stunned them by taking a 27th-minute lead it was only the fourth goal they had conceded in 14 league matches.
On a day of destiny, and with Liverpool winning at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers, it could have spooked teams of lesser resolve. Instead City responded in ruthless fashion to snuff out Liverpool’s hopes of a first title since 1990.
Guardiola, as successful as he is, has adapted his famed ‘tiki-taka’ short-passing style for the Premier League, blending pace and power into his possession-based blueprint.
Always seeking perfection, the Spaniard will tweak it again next season, when he promises City will be even better to counter anything Liverpool’s Klopp come up with in the summer.
“It’s the toughest title we have won in all my career, by far,” he said of this season’s duel.
“When you win two in a row in this country with all these incredible managers and players, it’s because we’ve done really, really well. It will be even tougher next season but we will be stronger too. I have the feeling next season we’ll come back.
“We don’t have one player who makes the difference, we have to do it as a team. That is the secret. We push each other, I push myself, they push me.”
Guardiola’s ability to ask seasoned trophy winners to improve and go the extra mile is a trait he shares with former United boss Alex Ferguson, and according to skipper Vincent Kompany it is a key to City’s success.
“Pep starts everything off, he sets the standards. If he’s being nice and gives you a pat on the back the team doesn’t perform,” he said. “We have the desire to over-achieve and it’s hard to over-achieve with a team as good as we have.”
Guardiola can finish a remarkable season by becoming the first manager to win the domestic treble in England when City face Watford in the FA Cup final at Wembley next weekend.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Ken Ferris)