Lay of the land as Man City emerge from 11-day Liverpool and Champions League reckoning – Alex Brotherton
When the draw was made for the FA Cup semi-finals four weeks ago, plenty of Manchester City fans winced when they realised the consequences for their fixture schedule.
The Blues were drawn against Liverpool, completing a set of four daunting fixtures that would take place in the space of just 11 days. It was billed as a week-and-a-half that would define City’s season, given that the four encounters spanned three different competitions.
The reckoning started at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday, April 5 with the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Atletico Madrid, before Premier League title rivals Liverpool visited five days later. Three days after that came the second leg of the Atletico tie, before Pep Guardiola’s side jetted back to the UK for the showpiece fixture at Wembley.
Of those games, City won one, drew two and lost one; not the greatest outcome on paper. But where exactly do those results leave City?
Atletico Madrid were always going to prove extremely tough opponents to break down, but ultimately City found a way. A moment of genius from Phil Foden and Kevin de Bruyne proved the difference in the first leg, before City had to scrap their way to the semi-finals in the second.
In terms of their hopes of winning the competition for the first time, progression to the last four is the most important thing. There the Blues will face Real Madrid, a very different kind of challenge but one City will be favourites to overcome.
The fiery match in Madrid did take its toll on City though. A second half of desperate defending and chasing shadows no doubt took a physical and mental toll on City’s regular starters, while De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Kyle Walker all picked up injuries. The two midfielders were named on the bench at Wembley three days later, but it remains to be seen how long Walker will be out for.
That means Guardiola could be without his two starting full-backs for the first leg against Los Blancos on April 26, as Joao Cancelo will miss out through suspension after picking up a yellow card. The overall objective was progression though, and City did that while showing a seldom seen scrapping ability and mental toughness.
The minimum requirement when Liverpool visited the Etihad last weekend was to avoid defeat, and City managed to do that. The 2-2 draw left City one point ahead of Liverpool at the top of the Premier League with seven games remaining, so the title is in their own hands.
However, as Guardiola put it after the game, his side left their rivals “alive.” There was a period towards the end of the first half when City were all over Liverpool, and having regained the lead through Gabriel Jesus, arguably should have gone into half-time with three or four goals under their belts.
A win would have given City a four-point advantage in the title race, but it wasn’t to be. The fact that they didn’t, coupled with the midweek European exertions that followed, played a part in City’s defeat on Easter Saturday.
As we all know, Guardiola is a big believer in always prioritising the next match on the schedule, no matter who the opponent is. However, after three draining fixtures in the two most important competitions, it was clear that Guardiola decided not to prioritise the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Liverpool, even if out of necessity.
Knowing that City must try to win all seven of their remaining league games, it would have been risky for Guardiola to go all-in at Wembley and not give any of his regular starters a much-needed rest. With Liverpool in the form that they are in, there is nothing to suggest that they will drop points any time soon.
Guardiola will never admit it, but the FA Cup is just not as important as City’s Premier League and Champions League aspirations.
So, after four tough games in the space of 11 days, City have emerged in relatively good shape. They have taken some knocks along the way and can no longer win the treble, but their two primary targets are still within their sights.