Premier League leaders and League Cup holders are expected to take their place in the Uefa Champions League quarter-finals on Wednesday.
Pep Guardiola plays down comparisons between Manchester City and Barcelona: 'We don’t have legacy behind us'
Pep Guardiola’s answer was swift and emphatic. Manchester City have a 16-point lead in the Premier League, a trophy in the cabinet and a 4-0 advantage from the first leg of their European tie with Basel. Yet when he was asked if a team many are dubbing the favourites to win the Uefa Champions League are at the same level as Barcelona, the Catalans’ former manager was quick to reply.
“No,” he said. “Because it is completely different players. They won a lot in the past. We are new. We won now one title but it is not comparable. That team dominated the last decade with different managers and different players. To join this kind of teams you have to be there a long time.”
City may be on the brink of doing something special. There is an element of novelty, however, because it will be something new. “We don’t have legacy behind us,” Guardiola said succinctly.
Only one team has ever overturned a four-goal deficit in the Champions League – Guardiola’s beloved Barcelona, against Paris Saint-Germain last season – and even that was at home.
Presuming Basel do not top that achievement, City will be in the last eight. “It will be just the second time in our whole history in the quarter-final of the Champions League,” Guardiola noted.
Ilkay Gundogan concurred with his manager. The midfielder has a greater Champions League pedigree than his employers, scoring in the final during his Borussia Dortmund days, and feels the continent’s aristocrats should still be the favourites.
“People like to see us at the same level as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but we still feel we are not there yet,” the German said. “We are still on a journey. We still think there is a lot more potential.”
Gundogan’s personal journey has taken him deeper, as he has stood in for the sidelined Fernandinho at the base of the midfield. “If I have to be more disciplined in a defensive way, I have to do it," said a player who has suffered from serious knee injuries. “I couldn’t say I am the same as three or four years ago. I have to accept what happened in the past.”
City’s immediate past includes a last 16 exit to Monaco 12 months ago. Guardiola guarded against complacency as he tried to avert a repeat. “We start again from zero,” he said.
He cited Ostersunds’ second-leg comeback against Arsenal, who had secured a 3-0 first-leg lead in Sweden. “Arsenal had an amazing result in the Europa League and [after] 23 minutes, it is 2-0 [to Ostersunds],” he said. “In football, anything can happen.”
There was also a warning about the perils of knockout football. The City manager highlighted a challenge Oleksandr Zinchenko made on Victor Moses in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Chelsea which drew a booking. It could have come with greater consequences in another competition.
“Zinchenko on Moses, orange [card], could be yellow, could be red,” he said. “If it is red, you are out of the Champions League.”
Fernandinho and Raheem Sterling could both make comebacks on Wednesday night, though it is likelier they will be fit to face Stoke on Monday. Benjamin Mendy is back in training, too, but will not feature yet.
“We have to be careful,” said Guardiola, who will decide whether to grant Phil Foden a first start in the knockout stages of the Champions League and Gabriel Jesus a first of 2018.
Some of his premier players should be granted a rest. They will be required if he faces Barcelona in the latter stages. Then Guardiola’s theory will be put to the test.