Champions League success will define Guardiola's Bayern stint

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Guardiola will be measured by his Champions League success this season.

On June 24, 2013, Pep Guardiola emerged from the tunnel at the Allianz Arena to meet the blinding flashes of the assembled photographers. It was a glorious day for Bayern Munich, meant to cast dark clouds over the rest of Europe’s elite. The world’s best coach had taken over the best side on the planet, fresh from winning the Treble under Jupp Heynckes. Though critics questioned whether the Catalan could make the Germans even better, there was a general consensus that if anyone could, it was Guardiola. 

Two years on and Guardiola is still having to prove himself in what is likely to be his final year in Munich, an incredible scenario given his fantastic results since arriving in Germany.

Guardiola with the 2014-15 Bundesliga trophy.

He has won two Bundesliga titles, one DFB Pokal, a FIFA Club World Cup and a UEFA Super Cup. His record in the league and Champions League, on paper, is remarkable; in his 94 games in those competitions, his side has lost just twelve matches. Break that record down further and it’s even more impressive. In the league, only two of 68 games were lost before the title was won and in the Champions League, two of Bayern’s six defeats have come after qualifying from their group. So in reality, Pep has lost just six ‘competitive’ games. Yet his Bayern legacy will depend on at least reaching the final of this season’s Champions League.

So what can Guardiola do to make this happen? Karl-Heinz Rummenigge described the Champions League as “always the highest prize, but it’s a competition of no guarantees, where the things taken for granted domestically don’t always work out”. It’s true, one bad night can see you dumped out or, as Bayern proved at the Camp Nou in last season’s semi-final, one crazy 15-minute period can undo months of preparation. It is easy to forget the Germans had matched Barcelona up until Juan Bernat lost possession in the 77th minute to allow Lionel Messi to score the opener.

Guardiola would have stewed on the defeat all summer, asking what he could have done better. Now ready to embark on another continental campaign, here are four reasons Guardiola can bring home the Champions League this season.

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DOUGLAS COSTA A DIFFERENT OPTION
One solution has been the signing of Douglas Costa from Shakhtar Donetsk. For some the Brazilian wasn’t high-profile enough, given the relatively low reputation of the Ukrainian league. The 24-year-old gives Guardiola another option, though, especially given the recent injury records of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. Both Ribery and Robben, as well as key cog Javi Martinez, the vastly underrated David Alaba and Holger Badstuber all missed the Barcelona tie last season, severely depleting the Bavarians.

Costa’s directness is something Pep knew he required, telling Sport earlier this summer: “We needed a player with a lot of quality in one-on-ones.”Costa has been instrumental for Bayern so far, particularly in the 5-0 hammering of Hamburg in their Bundesliga opener; the Brazilian rounding off the scoring with the fifth goal and offering Guardiola’s men the most consistent threat throughout. Though Costa alone won’t be the difference, his arrival frees up other players to move into more natural positions and offers vital depth that has been missing for the past two seasons given the club’s chronic injury list.

THE ENERGY OF VIDAL
Arturo Vidal’s arrival was a little less clear cut than Douglas Costa’s. While his ability is absolutely not in question, finding a role for him appeared more difficult. His sometimes over-combative style, technical ability and age make him almost the antithesis of what Guardiola likes in a player. The signing means either one of two things: Guardiola is becoming even more pragmatic in Munich, or Bayern are already planning for life after their Spanish supremo.

But Vidal could certainly become a key component of Pep’s plans for Champions League glory. Guardiola’s reputation is built on his teams’ attacking prowess, yet the reality is that Guardiola loves planning his defensive strategy, especially with regards to winning the ball back. It could be argued he re-invented the pressing game with his Barcelona side’s ferocious pursuit of possession that began high up the pitch.

Vidal is an ideal player to press due to his exceptional stamina levels and impeccable work-rate. His aggressive reputation is also exaggerated and his ability to hunt down opposition was key for Juventus last season and can make a difference in Europe for Bayern this term. The Chilean’s game also frees up more creative teammates such as Xabi Alonso and Thiago. Vidal is a direct replacement for Bayern icon Bastian Schweinsteiger, and offers Pep greater energy in the centre of the park.

PEP IS A PROVEN WINNER
After six seasons of top-level coaching, Guardiola will be confident he has the know-how to, at least, reach the Champions League semi-finals again. A group containing Arsenal, Olympiakos and Dinamo Zagreb is unlikely to throw up any significant problems.

Injuries have undoubtedly played their part in Bayern’s terrible semi-final record under Guardiola (played four matches, lost three, with a goal difference of -7), so with a fully-fit squad the penultimate stage should be a little easier to negotiate. His record compares favourably with some of the best coaches in the tournament’s history, yet he will know his reputation in Germany hinges on Champions League success this season.

BAYERN CAN VARY THEIR PLAY
Despite much talk of Pep’s ‘philosophy’ – the phrase he hates the most is tiki-taka – he really only has one aim: to win. The former Spain international obviously likes to play a certain way, but he isn’t afraid to make compromises in pursuit of victory. When losing at Stuttgart in his first season, Guardiola ordered his team to hit long balls into the box and try and win the knock-downs, the result of which was a 2-1 win. One of the trademarks of his Bayern side domestically is quickly hitting long diagonal balls to the wings to try and unbalance the opposition defence. In their opening three games this season, it has been about wing play – Douglas Costa and Thomas Muller having a huge influence of proceedings.

It seems impossible that Guardiola won’t at least reach the final with this Bayern side, given their complete dominance domestically. Despite a strong start from Dortmund, it is likely that the Bundesliga will be a one-horse race again this term, meaning that planning one final flourish in his favourite competition will surely be Guardiola’s No. 1 priority.

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Reaction following Germany's 3-1 victory over Poland which moved the world champions to the top of UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying Group D.


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Wales' 'golden generation' are close to justifying their reputation

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Celebrations: Wales.

Wales manager Chris Coleman expects his players to be finally worthy of the ‘golden generation’ tag on Sunday night.

Victory over Israel in Cardiff will see Wales qualify for next summer’s European Championship in France – their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup.

Gareth Bale and company have worn the ‘golden generation’ label for some time but Wales have previously under-performed when it comes to qualifying and Wales fans wondered whether they could ever take the nation to a major finals.

However, it has been a different story this time as Wales remain unbeaten in Euro 2016 qualifying despite being pitched into a tough group with Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“We’ll be the golden generation when I’m sitting here with a smile on my face and we’re celebrating because we’ve got enough points not to be caught and we’re on our way to France,” Coleman said.

“Then, yeah, absolutely. They will deserve being called that.

“I said in the first camp in Andorra, to the players privately, that I thought this group of players are something special. With that comes a bit of pressure, but there’s a lot of quality there. We have to handle that but I do believe it’s on the way.”

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Wales followed their sensational victory over Belgium, ranked second in the world, in June by grinding out a more methodical victory in the heat and humidity of Nicosia.

Bale’s late header eventually proved the difference on a momentous night but Coleman believes there is an even bigger occasion around the corner.

“Everybody will talk about the Belgium game, it was fantastic,” Coleman said. “But this Cyprus result for me is equally as important. There are three games left and the biggest one has yet to arrive.”

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