Pep obsession on borrowed time

ROMAN ABRAMOVICH once had an obsession with Pep Guardiola every bit as great as the TV companies whose lenses were trained on the 'mystery' Russian for several seasons. The Chelsea owner courted Pep for just about as long.

There were several clandestine meetings, countless calls and offers that no one else would have refused. But the Catalan spurned all his advances, going first to Bayern Munich and then Manchester City.

For the Russian, it remained a story of unrequited love. Until now.

It was a pity therefore that we did not catch a glimpse of him when City came to the Bridge yesterday. We can, however, be sure he was watching whether on one of his yachts, in a bolt hole in the Caribbean or Med, or simply slinking back under a cashmere blanket in his £1 million box.

For a man with a face a poker player would die for, it would have been fascinating to see if he showed even the slightest sign of feeling like a cuckold.

On last night's and most of the season's evidence, he should definitely not.

In fact, with Chelsea 14 points above City, having done the double over them and having one hand on the Premier League trophy while City can't be sure of the top four, he may feel it was a lucky miss.

Whereas his current squeeze, Antonio Conte, is an even bigger shoo-in for the Manager of the Year award as the team is for the title, Pep has been found wanting.

The honeymoon was great – 10 wins in a row – but since then there have been tantrums, constant upheaval, and not being that good with the kids.

To be blunt, he has been shown up as a bimbo in the Premier League.

Nope, it is Conte, the Italian about whom there were early doubts, who has proved the ideal partner. The football is not as easy on the eye as Pep's once was but turning Jose Mourinho's petulant brood into Premier League champions in his first season is a triumph for the ages.

And seeing Pep's struggles at a club that was waiting for him with open arms for even longer and can match his own largesse must make him breathe a sigh of relief that might cause a snowdrift if he were back in Siberia.

Where Pep has tried to change everything from the curtains to the breakfast cereal, Conte merely tweaked what he found – and discovered bliss.

He is the pragmatist to Pep's romantic but Abramovich is now wise enough to know that in football even billionaires can't always get what they wish for.

The Russian fell in love with the game on a magical night at Old Trafford in 2002 when United beat Real Madrid 4-3 but lost 6-5 on aggregate.

There was a sublime hattrick from the Brazilian Ronaldo and friends tried to tell him it wasn't always like this.

But he'd made up his mind after 10 goalless minutes and told them to find a club to buy. Mourinho won him silverware but his football was never going to match Ronaldo and then the owner's eyes lit up when he saw Pep's Barcelona.

He thought he'd found the love of his life and pursued the manager ever since.

But after 14 rollercoaster and revolving door years at the helm, he's now looking as if he's found "the one".

A fifth league title and a second FA Cup double beckons with Champions League football to come next season. No doubt he will back Conte in the transfer window and even if City do likewise with Pep, he won't have all that much to fear.

City's struggles are a telling indictment of their manager. Indeed, you wonder what they're making of it in Abu Dhabi having "won" the battle for the Catalan's affections over the Russian after a concurrent courtship.

Indeed, City were even more determined, hiring a director of football and chief executive from Barcelona with the specific aim of attracting the manager who was once thought of as the best in the business. And even when he spurned them for Bayern, they did not give up.

It's a pity we never see Sheikh Mansour as we used to see Abramovich, but you'd love to be a fly on the marble wall of his palace when he's watching City at their more hapless.

Pep thought yesterday's performance was "1,000 miles" better than at Arsenal, but they still got beat.

Yes, he has some good players but until he sorts them out and in particular the defence – Caballero was again at fault – they won't do anything but tarnish a great reputation further.

Abramovich may still hanker after the champagne football he first tasted at Old Trafford or the stuff Barca played with Xavi, Iniesta and Messi but seems content with his Italian maestro.

But the more we see of Pep, the more we feel that Catalan vintage was down to the players he inherited. The question now is how long the Sheikh will remain as besotted as the oligarch once was.