Pep Guardiola has told his Manchester City players to seize what might be a “once in a lifetime” chance to knock Real Madrid out of the Champions League.
City host the Spaniards in the first leg of the semi-final at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday as they aim to reach the final for a second consecutive year. Real arrive as the record 13-time winners but Guardiola wants his team to enjoy the occasion.
“We have to be so precise against them,” he said on Monday. “I said to the players: ‘Enjoy it, prepare for the game. It could be once in a lifetime [experience], nobody knows.’ There is no sense to not enjoy it, we want to be ourselves.”
Guardiola believes reaching the last four again is another step in City’s quest to build an elite-level mentality and culture of relentless winning. “That’s why big clubs stay there for a long time. When you win, take a shower and go again. We are learning that. I felt that in Barcelona as a young boy and we are trying to build that culture where we have to win every game and fight to win every game.”
He is conscious that City should forget Real’s pedigree and simply play Carlo Ancelotti’s side. “The history is there – we cannot change it but it’s 11 v 11,” Guardiola said. “The players will decide this. We are playing a team who have been here many times, that’s why they have this history and we don’t. We can’t imagine what is going to happen but it’s 11 v 11 so it is about how the players move, how strong they are mentally, that will make the difference. Carlo and myself won’t win it. The players will.
“If we have to compete with history we don’t have any chance, they are better, it speaks for itself. But we have the desire to play against them and take on this incredible test and we want to improve. We are going to suffer together and then, when when we attack, do it as well as possible. This would be the same against Bayern Munich or Barça. They’ve been in it many times. Before the last decade we were never here. Reaching the final [last year] is a good lesson for us and for the future it will be good.”
Guardiola was also asked if City reaching this stage two seasons in a row meant that they are now an elite club and so in a sense it was mission accomplished for him. “Listen, as far as I’m a manager, it will never be accomplished, I’ll have another dream or target. We try to do our best, suffer together when playing bad, hopefully as few minutes as possible. This is the motive to do my job.”
This is only City’s third semi-final, their first having also been against Real in 2016 when a Gareth Bale goal took the Spanish side through 1-0 on aggregate. City knocked Real out in the last 16 two seasons ago, but this time Guardiola has concerns regarding who he can select in defence on Tuesday. João Cancelo, a first-choice full-back, is suspended while Kyle Walker, John Stones and Nathan Aké face late fitness tests.
“They are doubts, John has not trained since Brighton [last Wednesday],” Guardiola said. “Kyle not trained for the last 10 days. We’ll see how they feel and I’ll speak with them and make a decision on the day.”
Raheem Sterling was sitting next to Guardiola at the press conference on Monday. His 23 Champions League goals rank him as England’s third-highest scorer in the competition yet there have been discussions about his future with his contract running out next year.
“At the minute I’m just happy to be playing, happy to be contributing with the team,” Sterling said. “I think that’s the most important thing. At this period, I think it would be selfish of me to speak of any contract situation – I’m happy to be playing football and see where we are at the end of the season.”
Of his tally in the competition Sterling said: “It’s like anything, when you make your professional debut, then it’s on to the next thing. It’s scoring your first goal and then after scoring your first goal, as a human you always have to try and do better and that’s the case with me every season.
“I try to see how I can improve and to better at all these things that come along. I was trying to see if I can get the England record [of 30] and that’s what I’ll try to do.”