Manchester City overcome Treble hangover, creating chance to do it all again

Manchester City captain Ilkay Gundogan lifts the trophy after the UEFA Champions League trophy

Top of the Premier League, within touching distance of another FA Cup final and a game against Real Madrid standing between them and a place in a fourth successive Champions League semi-final, Manchester City are in familiar, treble-chasing territory.

Like his players, Pep Guardiola tends to truly come alive at this juncture of the season and there was a twinkle in the City manager’s eye and excitement and energy in his voice as he prepared to welcome the La Liga leaders to the Etihad Stadium, 12 months after Carlo Ancelotti’s side were on the wrong end of that extraordinary 4-0 drubbing.

Certainly performance wise, it remains the high water mark of Guardiola’s near eight-year reign in east Manchester – or what Bernardo Silva called the players’ version of an “apology” to the fans for the previous season’s dramatic, late semi-final implosion at the Bernabeu.

A display even 80 per cent as good on Wednesday night would probably be enough to see off Real, even this younger, hungrier, sharper, Jude Bellingham-enhanced version who underlined their threat in last week’s wild 3-3 first leg draw in the Spanish capital.

But had Guardiola been told four or five months earlier that his “happy flowers” team would have been administering that severe a beating to the 14-time European champions en route to a historic treble he might have laughed. There were all sorts of fault lines, so much so that the manager publicly admitted he “didn’t recognise” his side.

In many respects, the story of this season has not been much different. Bernardo may have been talking boldly on Tuesday about the prospect of City creating history of the unprecedented, head-spinning kind. But he also conceded that the idea of the “Double Treble” was not figuring prominently in anyone’s minds back in late November, early December when they failed to win in four successive league games, mustering just three points in the process, and were 2-0 down inside 33 minutes to RB Leipzig in their penultimate Champions League group stage match.

“For a team that won the Treble to come back with a little bit of a hangover and to have that hunger to go again every three days is not easy,” he explained. “But there was a mixture of factors. Our captain Ilkay Gundogan and [Riyad] Mahrez had left so new players had to adapt and it is not easy to adapt. It is a time when we had a lot of players injured, especially defenders. Rodri was suspended [for some games] and no one can deny he is a big player for us and Kevin De Bruyne had a long injury. All things together sometimes the team is not perfect.”

The consequence, Bernardo said, was an erratic team. “There was a time when the team was not playing well, we were not controlling the game,” he said. “The games were transitional games which is not the way we like to play, we like to control the tempo. We were conceding a lot of chances and late goals, which is not normal for us. But with a bit extra from each player we managed to get better, to be more solid and since December we haven’t lost a game so we are happy to get to this part of the season with the chance to still fight for the three most important competitions.”

That they have not lost since the captain’s group convened a squad meeting in a bid to get the season back on track says as much about their insatiable will to win as the team’s remarkable, relentless efficiency. “Our feeling within the team and what we agreed [as players] and really wanted to do was to fight as much as we could to give ourselves a chance at the end of the season to still fight for all the competitions,” Bernardo said.

“Not to be 20 points ahead of Arsenal and Liverpool but to be there with them to fight. We’re very happy that we could achieve this even with those ups and downs, which were true.”

Liverpool and Arsenal’s defeats swung the momentum City’s way in the title race at the weekend but Bernardo – who scored twice in that breathtaking 4-0 masterclass against Real last season and again at the Bernabeu last Tuesday – is expecting no favours from Ancelotti’s side.

“Madrid are stronger this season, that is my feeling when we play them at the Bernabeu, and for sure they will want a bit of revenge for that game so it will be difficult,” he said.

“We have the maximum respect for Real Madrid for everything they have achieved in this competition and in their history and we know it is a very dangerous team because they play very different to us.

“Sometimes you feel you are in control and then they get in behind and score goals so it is very difficult to control Real. You have the feeling you have the game under control but you never do.”

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