There is good reason Manchester City have opted not to make a song and dance about their two new signings this week. Pep Guardiola is determined to avoid any distractions ahead of the club’s biggest game of the season at the Etihad Stadium on Friday and you could sense him wanting to quickly change the subject when asked for his opinions about Ferran Torres and Nathan Ake on Thursday.
It is why the City manager may have been particularly frustrated by the timing of the news that his young defender, Eric Garcia, does not want to sign a new contract. For almost a fortnight now, the focus has been solely on Real Madrid, and Guardiola has wanted nothing to detract from the task of seeing off the 13-time European champions in the second leg of their Round of 16 tie to secure City’s safe passage into the Champions League quarter-finals.
Given Guardiola’s recent history in the competition, this sharp emphasis on concentration, on focus, is entirely understandable. In five of the last six seasons, Guardiola has seen his City and Bayern Munich teams crash out in the knockout stages in large part due to the way they have been overwhelmed by opponents in quickfire bursts and, with each failure, the pressure builds.
Tottenham scored twice in three minutes in the second leg of their quarter-final victory last season. Twelve months earlier, Liverpool picked off City with three goals in 19 minutes in the first leg of their last eight tie at Anfield. Monaco enjoyed similar success in Guardiola’s debut campaign with City, with two goals in eight minutes of their Round of 16, first leg match and two goals in 21 minutes in the return game in the microstate.
It was a similar story in his first two seasons with Bayern: Real plundered three goals in just 18 minutes en route to an emphatic 4-0 semi-final, second leg victory at the Allianz Arena in 2014 and, a year later, three late goals in 17 minutes for Barcelona inflicted irreparable damage to Bayern’s hopes of reaching the final.
So Guardiola’s teams have shown a troubling habit of falling to pieces in a short space of time and the Catalan is adamant that, if his team are to win the competition this term, they must react far better in those bad moments and stop their minds from becoming scrambled.
“Yeah definitely, more than conceding goals it’s the way we are conceding them,” Guardiola said. “When they are brilliant [goals], and an opponent makes a good action, we accept it. But most of the goals we could avoid, and we have to avoid it.
“Making mistakes like that in this competition punishes you a lot. We know it. We’ve spoken about that not just now, in these last few weeks, but for years, many times, in important games like this. We know it and if we want to make a step forward as a team to be close to winning this competition we have to be better in this area.”
With a 2-1 advantage from a Kevin De Bruyne inspired first leg at the Bernabeu, City are in the box seat but Real will have noted their opponent’s capacity to crumble and Zinedine Zidane, the Spanish champions’ coach, has often successfully demonstrated a pragmatic streak that Guardiola’s critics feel he might benefit from in this competition.
This Real team may not be nearly as good or dangerous as the one that crushed Guardiola’s Bayern en route to the first of four European Cups in five seasons. They will also be without their captain and defensive lynchpin, Sergio Ramos, while their main counter-attacking threat, Eden Hazard, is not fully fit, which makes the absence of Gareth Bale a little harder to understand, even if the Welshman’s relationship with Zidane is severely strained.
But Real have an aura in the Champions League which ensures they remain a threat, just as City, for all their talents, have yet to convince us they have the mentality and resolve to prevail in this competition. Victory at the Bernabeu in February, when Guardiola asked De Bruyne and Bernardo to operate as false nines and Gabriel Jesus wide left in a nominal 4-4-2, felt like a step forward, mentally as much as anything. But they still have to finish the job and will have to do so without Sergio Aguero, who has not given up hope of being fit for the latter stages should City get there as he continues his rehabilitation from knee surgery in Barcelona, and a defence that does not inspire confidence.
“I know we have a better team but we have to show it with good behaviour - equalling their personality,” Rodri, the City and former Atletico Madrid midfielder, said, in a nod to how mentality is as important as ability at this rarefied level. “You can never relax [against Real], even if winning 3-0 or 4-0, they always come back. It takes huge personality to do what they’ve done in the last 20 years, the biggest team in this competition, and they’ve shown that to the world.”