Tthe day after the madness and the pulse a little closer to the rest levels Pep Guardiola did as usual. The Manchester City manager looked at his laptop to pass the forensic debrief and pressed the pause.
Guardiola had made it in the 73rd minute of the 2-2 thriller with Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium when Gabriel Jesus worked an opening to the right of the goal. Kevin De Bruyne was on the cut-back. Just pass it on to Kevin. But no. Jesus is still shooting at the side net and 50,000 voices are still screaming at him – more vociferously than De Bruyne.
The moment he had chased Guardiola after the match, which he recounted with such apparent frustration, he could not have seen better. Phil Foden to De Bruyne to Riyad Mahrez, substitute, at minute 94. Pause. The first touch on Foden is still visible, even though Mahrez has clearly decided to kick inside. Pause again. The move to Foden seems like an even better bet now. Play. Mahrez always sends the chipped shot high.
Guardiola understood. For him there can be no recriminations, especially not after such a dynamic team dynamic; a day he had so much to choose from, including his selection of Jesus and Raheem Sterling in the front row. His runs behind the Liverpool defense have caused all sorts of problems, testing the recovery rate of the midfielders and even making Virgil van Dijk look a little old at times.
“I pause … the game stops, nobody moves … the ball doesn’t pass here,” Guardiola said. “But in football, they have to make a decision in half a second. And it’s difficult, always. My reaction on the bench … Aaargh, how come we don’t do it? The hands that move. But then, I understand them. It’s difficult sometimes and, in the third final, in the box, it’s the most difficult position.
Guardiola spoke of a missed opportunity, as City had allowed Liverpool to stay alive in the race for the Premier League title when he could have been killed. But the above sentiment has been one of satisfaction, of confidence for the upcoming battles – the next of which comes at Atlético Madrid on Wednesday night in the quarter-finals of the Champions League; City is 1-0 up from the first leg. Then it’s Liverpool again in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Saturday. And who knows? It could also be City v Liverpool in the Champions League final.
Much has been said and written about the nine victories of Jürgen Klopp’s career against the Guardiola teams; four came when the Liverpool manager was in charge of Borussia Dortmund and Guardiola was in Bayern Munich. No manager has come forward against Guardiola. For the record Guardiola also has nine wins, while now there are five draws.
But Guardiola has been the leader in the last four seasons, winning four of the nine competitions in all competitions and losing just one. On Sunday, their players made much more good decisions than bad ones; they created a lot and gave up relatively little. There was a parallel to the 2-2 draw at Anfield earlier in the season in that city could be out of sight at half-time. Yes, contempt in the big moments is a concern, but more importantly the moments are created.
Guardiola knows it’s about performance levels and even De Bruyne, who is in electric form. “We played a good game and we deserved to win,” he said. “But in the end we took it. They have quality and we didn’t give too much.”
What was clear from the City field was how much respect Liverpool had for coming to play, which was in stark contrast to Atlético’s approach from the previous Tuesday. The Spanish team did not concede a single shot during the first leg.
“Against Atlético … where you play against such a defensive wall, it’s not the best game to play or watch,” De Bruyne said. “There’s nothing we can do. If a team comes here to play, it’s always a good game and Liverpool come here to play as they play.”
Atlético will clearly present a different challenge and, for City, the timing is relentless. Pause and recover on Monday. Travel Tuesday. No time to train, as Guardiola says. Then play. It will be the same routine that leads to the FA Cup semi-final.
Guardiola is aware Liverpool are at home in their quarter-finals of the Champions League, the second leg on Wednesday night against Benfica. “I can say, ‘Oh, thank you very much in the Premier League … I could give you an extra day,'” said Guardiola. In this country, it is impossible. And I like that because it will show if you can get over the bad times and play. “
De Bruyne is also in the groove. “It would be nice to think about the end of the season [title run-in] but you don’t have the time, ”he says.“ That’s probably a good thing because we just play, play, play and then we’ll see what happens. I think Atlético’s game will be a little tight at first, but it will change if the score stays the same. I don’t expect it to be a similar game to the first stage. “