When Guardiola said Manchester City had raised the bar in the Premier League in the same way Usain Bolt and Tiger Woods did so in athletics and golf, respectively, he had a point. On his watch, no one stands still; City have broken their own goalscoring records and neatly blossomed as a team, as well as individually; Raheem Sterling has flourished and Bernardo Silva has become a vital performer. In the end the quadruple may have eluded them but that it was regarded as feasible for so long is an indictment of just how talented Guardiola’s superstars are. Trophies will always define a club that mixes in the circles City do these days, an empire enormous in stature, but perhaps the biggest compliment, given the struggles across the city at United, is the rude health the whole club is in under Guardiola. Naysayers might argue he is a chequebook manager but he has still been City’s best-ever signing.
“I played against incredible sides but there are especially two that were: ‘Wow,’” Guardiola said. One of which is Klopp’s Liverpool team, one half of a tantalising title race. The other? The Barcelona side that boasted Neymar, Messi and Suarez. Liverpool must be sick of the sight of Guardiola but such a statement is a huge compliment. Klopp has crafted a fearless, box office team capable of causing havoc from every nook and cranny. As Jose Mourinho has recently been at pains to point out, Liverpool have been patient with the German, entrusting him to deliver success in the long term and affording him time to transform them into a formidable force, one dripping in team spirit and class, from Andy Robertson to Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mane. Now, four years into life at Liverpool, almost every second has been unforgettable.
Nuno Espirito Santo
That the Wolverhampton Wanderers head coach was awarded an honorary doctorate by the city’s university this month underlines the kind of splash the Portuguese has made in the Black Country since taking charge two years ago. After promotion, many predicted them to shake things up but few to the extent with which they have, storming to make seventh place their own with considerable swagger. If they had seen out a 2-0 victory against Watford, they would have an FA Cup final appearance to boot. A lot is made of Wolves’s links with Jorge Mendes but, unlike some of the big hitters’ scattergun approach, there is a clear strategy to their thinking. So much so that the likes of Joao Moutinho and Raul Jimenez have seamlessly slotted into Nuno’s team.
Imagine what Pochettino could do with a penny or two. Given the financial ceiling in place at Tottenham Hotspur, another year of Champions League football, and reaching this season’s final, cannot be sniffed at. There has been adversity in the way of injuries to key players — none more so than Harry Kane — and the accompanying noise around a delayed move to a one-billion-pound stadium to contend with. But it is his coaching that yields the most respect; Moussa Sissoko, Lucas Moura and Son Heung-min are not kids but, such is their development, they are the latest exhibits of his work on the training field. Then there is his unerring confidence in handing young players responsibility. Having signed a grand total of zero players last summer, or indeed in January, Spurs continue to improve year on year under Pochettino. His name is on the lips of directors across Europe with good reason. At Tottenham, he has revitalised and revolutionised a club. Only victory in Madrid would make his stock soar yet higher.
Gracia grew up running with bulls in Pamplona, and the way he has harnessed Watford into a team pushing for Europe should come as no surprise. The Spaniard is affable and modest but a disciplinarian; players are fined £100 per minute they are late. He has not only successfully stabilised Watford during his first full season in charge but also led them to an FA Cup final for the first time in 35 years. Gracia is the first head coach in the Pozzo family’s seven-year ownership of the club to extend his contract, which in itself is an achievement. At the end of a fine season, lifting the winners’ trophy at Wembley would be the icing on the cake. Ralph Hasenhuttl, who rescued a Southampton side struggling to stay afloat, Eddie Howe, who guided Bournemouth to a fifth consecutive top-flight season and Neil Warnock, for giving Cardiff a fighting chance of survival, should also be commended.