Pep Guardiola senses change in Man City squad ahead of Real Madrid fixture
Pep Guardiola can sense that his Manchester City players know they are close to achieving what they want this season. A gruelling April — which has included three Champions League matches and an FA Cup semi-final — concluded with City’s ninth game of the month at Elland Road, as the Blues held their nerve to stay ahead of Liverpool in the Premier League title race with four games to go.
Kevin De Bruyne said a few weeks ago that the schedule made it impossible to look ahead, and the small squad has been stretched to breaking point by injuries — particularly in defence. John Stones and Kyle Walker are doubts for the Real Madrid second leg after missing the Leeds game, while Guardiola said that Nathan Ake felt discomfort in his ankle at the weekend but played through it.
Having fielded an understrength team in the FA Cup that saw them knocked out by Liverpool, Guardiola took a risk at Leeds by leaving both Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva on the bench ahead of their trip to the Bernabeu. But while the midfield battle was a struggle, City dug in individually and collectively to claim a confidence-boosting win.
Ahead of what is hoped will be a May filled with silverware, Guardiola saw a change from the reaction of his unused substitutes at Elland Road to indicate that all of the players are beginning to emerge from the fog of games and see with clarity their remaining hurdles standing in the way of success.
“There are three or four weeks until the end of the season and the players on the bench felt it and supported the guys who played today, how happy they were,” said Guardiola. “Normally in November and December it is completely different but now they know it is around the corner and I am sure they are going to give everything.”
The platform for City’s victory at Leeds was an outstanding defensive performance. Aymeric Laporte and Ruben Dias set the example by mixing brawn with brains. But the sight of Jack Grealish winning headers in his own box, and Raheem Sterling scampering back to win possession, typified the collective effort.
And while Guardiola felt that a 4-0 scoreline flattered the Blues, he was pleased to see them rack up more goals because he does not expect to be able to hold Real to a 0-0 on Wednesday.
City should have scored more than the four they did in the first leg, but the fact that they have now scored 16 goals in their last four matches adds to the feelgood factor in the squad as they head to Spain looking to get even closer to a trophy.
“We have five games — maybe six if we win on Wednesday — and if we win all of them we will be Premier League champions and reach the final of the Champions League,” said the manager. “During these games, it will happen like today up and down, good moments and moments and it is how we react. If we are good in reacting to conceding goals against Madrid, this will be a key point.
“It’s definitely better to travel there after winning today. We have scored a lot of goals since our FA Cup defeat to Liverpool – three goals, five goals, four goals, four goals again — it is a lot and it is the only chance that we have to go through. We have to score goals in the Bernabeu.”