Pep Guardiola sat down and folded his arms in front of him. Folded them tight. He listened to the first question. It was about the Champions League and whether winning it has become a dream or an obsession.
His arms stayed folded. The red stripes on his tracksuit top blazed in the artificial light.
‘It is absolutely a dream,’ he said. ‘It is about obsession and desire.’ Then he paused for a second while he thought about what he had just said. ‘Obsession is a positive word.’
That is something that has changed this year as Guardiola and City have swept all before them in their pursuit of a Treble that only Manchester United have achieved before and a Champions League trophy that City have never won in their long and undulating history.
In the past, as the biggest prize in club football kept slipping away from them against Liverpool and Lyon and Chelsea and Real Madrid, season after season, Guardiola seemed reluctant to acknowledge how important it was to win the Champions League.
Now, as City prepare to face Inter Milan at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium on Saturday night, that pretence has gone. City need to beat Simone Inzaghi’s side to be admitted to the elite of world football and Guardiola needs to win to confirm his place as the world’s leading manager.
City are a club that has lived much of their existence in shadow. They have lived in the lee of United. They have been Manchester’s other club. United became adept at stealing their thunder. When City won the league in 1968, United picked the same season to become the first English team to win the European Cup.
And now City have a glorious chance to win the European Cup, too. They are huge favourites to win on the outskirts of this sprawling, magnificent city on Saturday evening and become only the sixth English team to lift the trophy.
There is a widespread feeling — not shared by anyone at Inter, obviously — that we have come to Istanbul more for a coronation than a contest. City are probably the hottest favourites to win a final since AC Milan faced Liverpool here in 2005.
That did not work out too well for Milan, but even though the rogue ringing of a mobile phone during the Inter press conference on Friday gave Lautaro Martinez the opportunity to show off the fiercest furrowed brow in football, it remains difficult to look beyond City as winners.
Inter are playing on the idea that they have nothing to lose and that all the pressure is on City and, in a way, that is true. For City, this is the chance to join United, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Chelsea in the pantheon of English clubs who have won the trophy. Victory will admit them to a club that has closed its doors to them until now.
Manchester City, the team who were playing Wigan, Wrexham, Wycombe and Macclesfield Town in English football’s third tier 25 years ago, the team who had become a byword for misfortune, the team who played for a draw to avoid relegation when it needed a win, the team who count a win over Gillingham as one of their most critical victories, can write a different chapter now.
Some will mourn if they win. Victory for City would be victory, too, for Abu Dhabi, which bought the club in 2008. Victory would be seen by many as the moment that ushers in a new era dominated by petro-states, with Paris Saint-Germain, Newcastle United and, perhaps, Manchester United, waiting in the wings to join City at the top of the game.
And, yes, victory for City would be a victory for a team who are facing 115 Premier League charges over alleged financial breaches, charges that have led rival fans to pour scorn on their achievements. Amid all City’s domination this season, they and their supporters have also been fired by a feeling the world is against them.
But victory would also be hailed by others as Guardiola’s crowning glory, the moment when he proved he could win the biggest competition without Lionel Messi in his side, the moment when he proved he could harness the obsession that the Champions League has become.
It is 12 years since he last won it and a triumph against Inter would put him level on three victories with Bob Paisley and Zinedine Zidane. Many already consider him the greatest football manager in history but a win here would burnish his legacy.
Guardiola kept a lid on his emotions at the stadium as dusk fell over Istanbul and the floodlights mixed with the last glints of evening sunshine. He stood watching the last training session before the game with his foot planted on a ball, studying, pacing, exhorting Erling Haaland and his team-mates even now.
He smiled thinly when City’s only previous appearance in a Champions League final was mentioned, the time in 2021 when he glitched and chose to play neither Rodri nor Fernandinho in his midfield and City fell to a shock defeat by Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea in Porto. He talked about how he did his best that night and how he could not pinpoint lessons he has learned from it.
‘I would like to tell you the lessons but I don’t know,’ he said. ‘It’s two years later, different players. It didn’t work and that’s why people say the decision was wrong. It is the same now. I have an idea, I have a plan and we are ready.’
Even if he kept those arms folded, he was not prickly or defensive. In fact, he was self-deprecating. When he was asked to reveal the secret to all his success, he gave credit to the great players he has managed.
‘The secret?’ he asked. ‘Have good players. Have Messi in the past. Have Haaland now. That’s the reason for my success. I’m not joking. It is the truth. And, perhaps, to let them feel that alone, they cannot do it.’ Haaland, who has scored a remarkable 52 goals in his first season in English football, will face one of his sternest tests against a redoubtable Inter defence.
‘But if you have doubts about Erling scoring goals, you will be a lonely person,’ Guardiola said.
No one expects an open game. City will have to be patient to try to break Inter down. They will have to accept spoiling tactics from their opponents, who beat their city rivals AC Milan in the semi-finals to get this far, and who qualified from a group that included Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
It will be about mentality, Guardiola said, as well as ability.
‘The Italian team is at 0-0 and they think they are winning but they are not winning,’ he said. ‘We are 0-0 and we think we are losing.’ Inter might be underdogs, some might ridicule them, but they are a good side.
‘The biggest mistake,’ City defender Ruben Dias said, ‘would be to forget that this is a final. In my mind, there are no favourites. But you can see the character of a team when you get to these stages. You can see if a team shows up or starts hiding and this team steps up every time.’
By the end of City’s training session, the natural light had faded outside and, under the floodlights’ glare, Guardiola gathered them into a circle for one last address.
When the circle broke up, he dragged John Stones away from it and began to grow animated. He danced backwards, pointing at Stones, making a point about the defender’s body shape.
Never resting, never satisfied, always watchful, still in the grip of the obsession, because obsession is a positive word.