To extend their participation in Europe's most prestigious tournament, City have to rouse themselves from the shock of Saturday’s second half to conjure a memorable response
Manchester City, a team built to break all records, face their ultimate test against Liverpool in Uefa Champions League
Pep Guardiola understood the emotions but referenced a fact.
“We are sad for our fans,” he said after Manchester City’s celebrations were put on hold and the perfect derby had a decidedly imperfect ending. “It’s the first time we’ve lost two games in a row this season.”
Indeed, it is the first in Guardiola’s reign at the Etihad Stadium. It is easy to brand it the worst week of City’s season. Having only lost four of their first 48 games, they have been beaten in successive matches by Liverpool and Manchester United. Having been excellent defensively, they conceded three goals in each.
Success can produce star-studded fixture lists and particularly pressurised times. This is one such. City face a reunion with Liverpool tomorrow, seeking to overturn a three-goal deficit. City have little time to feel sorry for themselves after United’s Paul Pogba-inspired comeback.
“The feeling is of sadness and disappointment but we must turn the page as soon as possible because we have another big challenge,” said full-back Danilo, who may find himself charged with stopping Mohamed Salah if Liverpool’s prolific Egyptian is passed fit to resume his role as City’s tormentor at the Etihad Stadium.
Keeping Liverpool quiet has a significance.
The fact is that City have lost their last two home games, even if one came with a weakened team when the tie against Basel was already won. And they have not lost three in a row at the Etihad Stadium since 2007, one of many depths they plummeted to during Stuart Pearce’s reign.
The reality is that, if they concede once against Liverpool, they have to score five.
And yet, as Jurgen Klopp pointed out in the aftermath of Liverpool’s 3-0 first-leg win, City have already struck five times against his side in Manchester this season. They could have been five ahead at half time against United: memories of two chances Raheem Sterling squandered and one Ilkay Gundogan directed at David de Gea may be slow to fade.
There was an understandable defiance to City after a 16-month unbeaten run at home in the league ended.
Their philosophy has served them well and placed them to not just win the league but claim records. “We play the same way we have done all the season. We mustn't forget what we did,” Danilo added.
The focus on the Uefa Champions League can be so all-consuming, especially for one with Guardiola’s stellar record in it, and the expectations of domination on all fronts so overblown that it may seem anti-climactic if City bow out in the quarter-finals.
In reality, it would still be their second best campaign in the competition.
Yet there are many, Klopp included, who believe City have played the best football in Europe this season. To extend their participation in its most prestigious tournament, they have to rouse themselves from the shock of Saturday’s second half to conjure a memorable response.
“We are going to try,” an empathetic Guardiola vowed. “I was a football player, I was there and I know exactly how they feel. Like all the season, I like to be with them.”
City have some things in their favour. Sergio Aguero looked sharp in his cameo against United. The Argentine had missed City’s three previous games with a knee injury.
He ought to have been awarded a penalty for a lunge by Ashley Young and, but for a brilliant De Gea save, would have headed an equaliser.
The rested Kevin de Bruyne and Kyle Walker can return to the starting 11. Their task will be to ensure that, in a week that has brought the unpredictable, the great comebacks at the Etihad are not confined to United.