Ilkay Gundogan has admitted Manchester City have lost focus and confidence as Pep Guardiola warned that his struggling side were ill equipped to win the Champions League.
City face Dinamo Zagreb at the Maksimir Stadium on Wednesday having already qualified for the Champions League first knockout stage in February as Group C winners.
But the Premier League champions have won just two of their past seven matches in all competitions and trail leaders Liverpool by 14 points, with Guardiola facing a challenge to revitalise his team’s fortunes after the worst start to a season of his managerial career.
Manchester United became the latest side to expose City’s defensive fragility during Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at the Etihad Stadium and, to compound their problems, John Stones and David Silva have added to their injury crisis.
Stones has been ruled out for “a few weeks” with a hamstring injury the England centre-half suffered against United and Silva has not travelled to Zagreb after “taking a huge kick in a dangerous part of his leg”. There is also uncertainty over when star striker Sergio Aguero will return, with Guardiola claiming he did not know when the Argentina forward would be available again.
Gundogan acknowledged that City’s concentration levels had dropped and that the team’s confidence had been affected by the poor run.
“I think it’s not unusual after two great seasons that it’s even tougher to do three in a row,” the Germany midfielder said. “But it’s also the challenge if you want to be on top and play the same successful kind of football every season.
“I think it’s normal we are going through this period but the only way out is to stick together and try to come back to what we’ve done in the past. Every single player has to take responsibility to reach his best level again. The sooner we can do that, the sooner we’ll be successful again, but it’s a challenge and we have to accept it.
“In general and in lifem if you are successful and have won so many things, sometimes you lose focus during that period but the more defeats you have, the more you recognise that’s not really the way you want to end up and you want to improve again and get to the level you were.
“It’s now the challenge to bounce back as quickly as possible. We all want to be successful and be the best because the potential is there.
“Of course there’s a bit of a lack of confidence when you lose games, and recognise you didn’t play as well as you could play, but we are strong mentally and should be able to do our best in every game.”
With Aymeric Laporte not due back until later next month from a long-term knee problem and Stones now sidelined, Guardiola has only one fit, recognised and experienced centre-half in Nicolas Otamendi and will have to lean more heavily than ever on Fernandinho, the veteran Brazil midfielder who has been deputising in the position.
Fernandinho suspended against Dinamo - who must overcome City and hope Shakhtar Donetsk fail to beat Atalanta to reach the Round of 16 - which means youngster Eric Garcia is likely to be given a rare start.
City have kept one clean sheet in their past 11 matches while goals have also not come as freely at the opposite end of the pitch and Guardiola admitted there would have to be improvement in both departments if his team are to mount a realistic challenge for the Champions League.
“Our game is there, but to reach this level we have to improve in some departments in the boxes,” the City manager said. “Right now we are not ready but in February maybe we are better and, after that, anything can happen.”
City’s troubles have heightened the clamour among fans for Phil Foden to be given an extended run-out. Guardiola confirmed the England Under-21 midfielder would start against Dinamo and insists he still views the player as Silva’s heir apparent, despite him playing just 85 more minutes this term that he had at this stage last season.
“I think he doesn’t speak too much but the important thing is not to be shy on the pitch and he’s not shy [on the pitch], never was and never is,” Guardiola said. “He’s growing from last season, still some departments he can improve, without the ball sometimes he take the decisions with character and spirit because he is so young. Sometimes he has to think a bit more about his decision-making, especially without the ball, but it’s normal with his age.
“His development is perfect. We are more than satisfied with what he is doing with his training and when he plays. That is our wish [to be a heartbeat of this City side], of course. David is a legend, the amount of games and titles, but it’s our wish [for Foden] and we believe he can do it. He only needs minutes and when he has them he’ll get what he needs right now. But with his age he’s going to get it.”
Team details (probable)
Dinamo Zagreb (4-3-3): Livakovic; Stojanovic, Ademi, Dilaver, Moubandje; Moro, Olmo, Gojak; Kadzior, Orsic, Petkovic.
Manchester City (4-3-3): Ederson; Cancelo, Garcia, Fernandinho, Mendy; Bernardo, Gundogan, Foden; Mahrez, Jesus, Sterling.
Referee: Carlos del Cerro Grande (Spain).