The night after Manchester City won the title, those walking through King Street in the city centre would have been surprised to see a casually dressed figure, dining in the pedestrianised street with his friends.
Pep Guardiola made little attempt to disguise his identity, given that he wears hooded tops on the touchline and on this occasion was very much lid down. Nor did he ask for a table that would protect him from the stares of passers-by. He most certainly could have, given that Tast is his restaurant, co-owned with Manchester City chief executive officer Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain.
Guardiola instead sat on the outer ring of the al fresco dining area where any gobsmacked autograph hunter or well-wisher — or even an embittered United fan, with a sharper tongue — could have stopped for a word or two. He got up to talk to friends he knew at other tables and left only because he wanted to catch Chelsea’s match with Arsenal.
Pep Guardiola has a chance to win the prize he was hired to deliver – the Champions League
One down, one to go. This was a man who does not do more than three years at any club, remember, who burns out, who needs to recharge. He is at the end of his fifth season in Manchester now, and has just signed a new contract. There is no sign the Guardiola project is nearing its end.
On Saturday, in Porto, Guardiola will attempt to deliver the victory that many will argue was the mission from day one. Manchester City: champions of Europe.
The club deny this, deny the supposed obsession with becoming the continent’s number one team, deny it was the priority target Guardiola was employed to deliver. But it was.
The City Football Group with its global club network spread across continents was always intended to dominate. It would be incongruous if having the marquee club in the position of greatest prominence in Europe was not a stated aim.
He has always shown his commitment to the club and the city, and chiefs Ferran Soriano (second left) and Txiki Begiristain (far right) have done their best to make him feel at home
Then there is Guardiola’s own pride at stake. This is his first Champions League final since leaving Barcelona, his first since the 3-1 win over Manchester United 10 years ago that is still regarded as the pinnacle of his coaching career.
When he won on that occasion, the modern City were still to collect their first title of the Premier League era. That they would recruit the coach of his generation to drive that quest would have been considered almost fanciful at the time. The jibe is that Guardiola has never won in Europe without Lionel Messi. Now is his chance.
When Soriano sat down with his friend to try to sell him the City ideal, Guardiola was very interested in what lifestyle awaited if he committed his professional aptitude to the club. He asked about the city, the area, where to live, the places to go. He specifically mentioned restaurants.
Yes, Soriano assured him, Manchester was full of lovely restaurants, just the sort of places Guardiola enjoyed. When the meeting was over, Soriano turned to Begiristain. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Now, we’ve got to open a restaurant.’ Hence Tast which, by the way, is excellent.
There is no sign that the Guardiola project is nearing its end after five years at the Etihad
Yet it is also a symbol of the lengths City went to, making Guardiola feel at home. Equally, a Catalan-Spanish restaurant shows Guardiola’s commitment to the city, the laying down of roots. He didn’t stay in a hotel like Jose Mourinho. He didn’t move to leafy Cheshire. Guardiola’s residence is in the middle of the town.
And from the perspective of his rivals, it is ominous when he talks about Manchester City now. They thought they would have been rid of him by this point, that Manchester City would be back to contemplating another Manuel Pellegrini, maybe Brendan Rodgers. Instead, Guardiola remains with a box of tricks full of false nines and full backs that aren’t quite, and designs on Erling Haaland or Harry Kane.
At Wembley in 2011, he was already talking of leaving Barcelona — ‘players get tired of the manager, the manager gets tired of the players,’ he explained on the night — yet there is no sign of such insouciance now.
‘I have everything,’ Guardiola said,’ when asked the reason for this longevity. ‘I cannot ask for more to do my job. They give the manager everything he needs. Investment, yes, I cannot deny — but not just that. I have friends above me.
He last won Europe’s grand prize with Barcelona in 2011 – now the Spaniard can show he can win it without the help of Lionel Messi
‘I feel comfortable with my staff, my backroom staff, it’s simple. We share the mistakes and the good things all together and when we lose, they do not say I’m responsible, they try to find the solution and how we can do better.
‘The players know I’m the manager because I’ve been supported by the chairman, the CEO, the sporting director. There are five or six teams where they have top players. But at this club, even if we have to say bye it will be in a good way.
‘I know if I don’t win I will be fired, but we’ll shake hands and stay friends. I’m incredibly comfortable with that. If the results are good I will stay longer and longer.’
Chelsea, it is fair to say, do things differently. Thomas Tuchel would be best advised not to make any long-term dinner plans, let alone open a Bavarian-themed restaurant.
In the time Guardiola has managed three clubs, Chelsea have had 15 managers including caretakers and interims, yet this has also created the most successful English club in that period. The year after Guardiola’s Wembley triumph, Chelsea lifted the same trophy in Munich. Within six months the manager that did that, Roberto Di Matteo, was sacked.
His long-term project at City is not something Chelsea are accustomed with, having brought Thomas Tuchel in mid season to bring instant results
Yet somehow it works. Chelsea jettisoned another manager mid-season and galvanised the club into the form that has brought them here, to the banks of the Douro River, again mining the prospects of incredible success from the midst of chaos. They start as underdogs, despite beating Manchester City under Tuchel in their two previous encounters.
Much of that is due to their low-scoring forwards. These are the two tightest defences in the competition, chances will be at a premium. How many chances will Chelsea get? And how many will they need to score?
‘Preparing a team, is not about me pretending I know what will happen,’ said Tuchel. ‘It is not about predictions. I try to encourage everybody and prepare them for opportunities. We don’t want to arrive over-excited, but I tell them not under-excited either, because you can be too cool.
Tuchel has already got the best out of Guardiola, but the City boss will have tricks up his sleeve
‘This is not like a normal week. It is special. You can use being nervous, you can use that pressure. I will tell them: let’s be who we are, because we are a strong group if we do things together.
‘Manchester City are the benchmark we know that, the best team in Europe. But you can always close the gap on a team like that. We must be courageous, brave, suffering together, a strong belief, a strong quality. We must show up every minute.’
Easier said than done, of course. Tuchel has beaten Manchester City twice this season, but he hasn’t played this Manchester City. The false nine, best XI Manchester City that has performed so consistently in Europe this season without the tinkering that has undermined so many previous campaigns.
Guardiola is known for his ‘tinkerman’ traits but is expected to stick to his guns as he bids to serve up the European crown
For once, few are expecting Guardiola to have a trick up his sleeve. His selections this season in Europe have been largely consistent and Tuchel’s biggest headache will be preventing Chelsea getting overrun in midfield when his back three end up looking for a body to mark.
This will be the third all-English Champions League final in 14 years and, as often happens when two teams from the same country meet, the last two have not exactly been games to remember. Teams that know each other well know how to cancel each other out.
In Porto, a city famous for its tripe, it is to be hoped Manchester City and Chelsea will deliver better fare than that. Maybe Guardiola will even put it on his menu, if he wins.