Liverpool. Manchester United. Chelsea. Arsenal. They all share something in common as it relates to Manchester City in the last year. They beat the Blues when the stakes were high and Guardiola’s team needed a win.
To start with, Liverpool and Manchester City arrived at Match Day 12 in the just concluded Premier League season with 31 and 27 points respectively. The three points at stake were vital for many reasons. But more than the boisterous Anfield crowd realised then, they were capable of ending a 30-year wait to lift the league title.
City fell (even though in controversial circumstances) to a 3-1 defeat. That put Jurgen Klopp’s side seven points ahead in the title race early on. But more than just securing a healthy lead in the title race, the victory boosted the Merseysiders’ confidence that having conquered their number one rival, they could go all the way.
And so they did.
It can be argued that the title was won and lost in that game on November 10. After beating City, Liverpool went on a 16-game winning streak before finally succumbing to a surprise 3-0 defeat to then struggling Watford. Again, by then it was clear to even the blind that the Premier League title was headed to Anfield.
That one mistake of not being able to manage a game that even a draw would have been a good result for City, ended up costing the team dearly.
Following were back-to-back defeats to struggling Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men were a doubt to make it to the Champions League until the final few weeks of the season. In fact, Leicester City’s capitulation post Covid-19 break allowed Manchester United into the top four. Yet this team beat City home and away.
Chelsea’s 2-1 victory against Man City helped the London side secure top-four spot as well. To put how good Frank Lampard’s men have been this season into perspective; they lost to West Ham, Sheffield United and Liverpool in the next six games after playing City.
And then comes Arsenal. The FA Cup semi-final fixture between the Gunners and City was seen by many as a no-contest. Guardiola’s troops were supposed to sweep the London side aside. A 3-0 scoreline would have been normal. Except that it didn’t happen. In the end not only did City fail to score, they conceded twice.
Against a team that struggled all season and could not make it to Europe for the first time in over two decades, a team that lost 4-1 to Chelsea in last season’s Europa League final, that’s unacceptable.
But it revealed something crucial. Man City can lose to any team when the stakes are high.
It’s a mental issue that affects the team’s output on the pitch. One that Guardiola hopes to address against Real Madrid:
“It is important to arrive at the locker room and think you have done everything to try to win the game. It is not about winning or losing. We are here to try to win but you can lose - the opponent is also playing and you can play badly. But you have to run, you have to fight. In the first half against Arsenal it didn’t happen and that is why we lost,” the Catalan manager said after the loss to Arsenal.
“Now we are going to play another game and after that we have two weeks and I will see. I will look at the training sessions and I will smell the players that are more committed and able to play this game.”
So the Blues will have to adopt a different approach against the serial European champions. Beating or even holding Real Madrid to a draw will not be a walk in the park.
Zinedine Zidane is determined to take Madrid to the next round of the Champions League. It’s a competition the Spanish giants have dominated and know what to do at crucial times to have their way.
The one mistake City cannot make against the newly crowned La Liga champions is switching off mentally.
A failure to score goals against Los Blancos could prove costly. Yet, as seen against Tottenham last term, scoring alone will not be enough. Keeping the back door closed will be vital. The Spanish champions did not fail to score in any league game after resumption from the Covid-19 break with an average of two per match.
Karim Benzema has rediscovered his best form. The Frenchman narrowly lost the Golden Boot to Lionel Messi in the campaign. But his 21 strikes were enough to secure the title. With a backline that has proved unreliable many times when faced with tough opposition, cutting edge game management will be all-important.
Fortunately, these are the times having a manager like Guardiola at the dugout should make the difference.