Pep Guardiola despondent as fine margins cost Bayern in UCL vs. Atletico
MUNICH, Germany -- Pep Guardiola banged his fist lightly on the table, and for the only time in public, there was a visible show of frustration.
"I've done the best I can do," said the Bayern Munich manager, searching for the best way to convey his feelings after his side were eliminated from the Champions League by Atletico Madrid on Tuesday. "I don't have any regrets. I've done my best and, I don't know -- that's what I would like to say."
Guardiola would have been able to predict the questions in his postmatch news conference easily enough; he also would have known that little in his responses could change the bottom line. He will leave Bayern without having taken them to a Champions League final.
Would he agree that he had not fulfilled his mission in Bavaria? Is football really about anything more than winning titles? History may yet come to the impossibly harsh conclusion that Guardiola failed at Bayern, a victim of his own high standards, but as he rattled through a spirited defence of his three years in charge, you wondered exactly how a manager can be expected to control all of the fine, fine margins that decide games at this rarefied level.
Margins such as the direction of Thomas Muller's penalty kick in the 33rd minute; a successful conversion would surely have forced Atletico Madrid to chase the game and alter the approach that has brought them such eye-catching success. Margins like the narrowly missed interception by the otherwise outstanding David Alaba that allowed Antoine Griezmann to run through and effectively settle the tie.
It was worth listening to Atletico manager Diego Simeone's postmatch opinion that Bayern was "the best team I've faced in my career" -- in the first half, at least. Their performance was difficult to fault, a relentless assault of speed and intricate attacking play that seemed to be the crystallization of Guardiola's work in Munich. It was the synthesis of technical excellence and ferocious pressure off the ball that characterised his Barcelona side. Atletico could barely live with Bayern at times, and it did not seem to be the kind of night on which to question a coach who had moulded a team capable of this level of play.
"When you play like this, you have to be very proud," Guardiola said. "I hope Carlo Ancelotti can keep the same level going. The most important thing is that this club has a great future with these players and this mentality." The present, though, will still hurt. In the end, Bayern required one act of escapology too many in this season's Champions League, and perhaps the "one bullet" Guardiola claimed to have in hand during the run-up to this match was the spot kick Muller missed.
Simeone faced a searching question or two himself. He took umbrage when asked if this had simply been a clash of footballing cultures, asking his questioner exactly what they were getting at and then feigning surprise when the query was reworded.
"We try to play according to the characteristics of the players available," he said. "We have played two of the best three teams in Europe and knocked them out. That shows we have given good performances, especially at home against Barcelona. We had to suffer here, but I am very proud of how we reacted."
Tuesday's second leg saw Simeone's Atletico perhaps the most stretched they have been all season, but eventually it was an unmitigated triumph for their manager. It took "a good chat at half-time" to straighten things out, but the introduction of Atletico's Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco pushed them that bit further up the pitch, while Saul Niguez's redeployment in a deeper midfield role ensured slightly better ball retention. Small margins again. It can also be overlooked that this is not completely the gnarled, practiced side we often think of often when describing Simeone's team.
Atletico began the 2014 Champions League final with Thibaut Courtois, Miranda, Raul Garcia, Tiago, Diego Costa and David Villa. None of those players will be available at the San Siro on May 28 for the UEFA Champions League final, and Simeone's achievement in refreshing his squad while maintaining exactly the same level of intensity and organisation is the stuff of wonder.
"We had more experience back then," said Simeone, invited to reflect on the difference between his two Champions League final squads. "Now we have a lot of young players who can learn, develop and show how good they are. Saul is one who has shown what he can do, and the way they perform on the pitch makes me very proud."
Beyond a core of key players, Simeone has had to carry out an overhaul, and his achievement in taking Atletico this far once more speaks volumes for his ability to cajole a team of players into operating at its very edge. He leads by example on that score: in injury time he pushed aside Atletico's own team delegate, Pedro Pablo Matesanz, while a substitution was being prepared and the clock ticked down. There is also a clarity and lack of ambiguity to his approach that translates onto the pitch.
From here, Simeone will take his players to Milan, while Guardiola, via the near certainty of another Bundesliga title, prepares for what may well be a significant rebuild of his new Manchester City squad. But perhaps, in one sense, the differences between these two old rivals are not as profound as the prematch billing had it.
"I've given my life to this club from the first minute to the last," Guardiola said when asked whether his tenure could be considered successful. "We've played well at times, not so well at others, and people can say what they want, but I am very proud of everything and it was a real honour to work with these players."
That devotion, dedication and fire are what these two managers have in common; Simeone, of course, had admitted at the outset to treating this tie like a "war." As Bayern thundered into their challenges and pressed feverishly from the front, and as Atletico scythed through their defence for a perfectly worked equaliser, you concluded that perhaps it is too easy to settle on comfortable definitions for either managerial styles or definitions of success and failure.
"It is, for the people and the analysts," said Guardiola when asked if victory was all that mattered. That tends to be true in the end, but this was a night on which it seemed fair to give everyone involved their due. As Guardiola stressed, they had done all they could.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.