For Pep Guardiola, the Atlético Madrid win means he ends his coaching career with a trophy in a winner’s medal drought of eight years. For Lionel Messi, the victory puts his astonishing career straight back on track after a season with Barcelona that saw him average only two goals a game.
And for Atlético, it marks the first time they have qualified from the Champions League group stage since 2009 and ensures they will keep their reputation as the best young team in Europe. It will also raise the expectation on Diego Simeone, who has tried to make this group match of group qualification his final season in charge of the club. But it will not be enough to keep them top of the table in Spain.
Pep Guardiola: ‘There are many corners of my life I am not proud of’ Read more
It is not a surprise to see Pep Guardiola out of the competition, given he had moved to Manchester City after the 2013-14 season. Yet he could not have had a better game than Saturday’s. He played nearly two-thirds of the game at a level no other coach could hope to match.
The 47-year-old took the risk of substituting Messi, who has a thigh strain, and allowed Diego Costa, who injured a rib last week, to be left out. Yet neither even came off the bench. Messi went on with 25 minutes to go and put the game to bed with the 88th-minute winner. The captain’s trophy was the only major trophy Guardiola never managed to win. And on Saturday he finally got the win to get over that lifelong heartache.
Spain’s La Liga has had three new leaders this season. The champions Atlético are tied for the league lead with Levante. Leganés are second, just one point behind. Barcelona are third and facing competition from Real Madrid in the battle for the title. These dynamics, rather than the two world-class attackers Atlético have at their disposal, gives them the edge.
The month of August will be crucial for all clubs who are near the top of their domestic leagues. The biggest will be Lionel Messi’s Barcelona, who host Sevilla on Sunday. Another European outing takes them to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, where they will face a Chelsea side currently fourth in the Premier League.
Manchester City, under Manuel Pellegrini, could compete in both competitions before the end of this season. The Chilean believes he has transformed them into a force that will be difficult to rival in Europe. He was at right hand to Bayern Munich for the five successful seasons of Jupp Heynckes as manager of the Bundesliga side. Bayern won three European Cups under Heynckes – in 2002, 2013 and 2015 – but he then handed it over to Guardiola. Now the former Barcelona manager is back.
Guardiola, who has hinted he may retire as a coach after a year, could still be at the helm after that. But City’s fate, and the success or failure of Guardiola’s successor at the Etihad, is tied directly to the result at Stamford Bridge.
At the other end of the table, there will be questions of where Barcelona are going. The likes of Neymar will surely seek new challenges in the next window. The reigning Player of the Year wants more goals and less service from his team-mates.
That could be good news for Manchester United, who were the team who knocked out Messi and Co in the 2014-15 final. Louis van Gaal could miss out on the title again this season, but they might have won the Champions League this time. Their likely opponents on Tuesday night? None other than Real Madrid.