At the start of a pivotal seven days that could well determine Manchester City’s destiny this season, manager Pep Guardiola last night demonstrated the complicated relationship he and his club share with the Champions League.
Guardiola first called on City supporters, who have often shown disdain towards the competition because of City’s Financial Fair Play troubles with UEFA, to back their club in the second leg of their quarter-final with Spurs at the Etihad.
But the Catalan, twice a winner of the trophy in his time in charge of Barcelona, also bristled at suggestions that he has been a “failure” in Europe’s leading competition.
It all added to the pressure swirling around during a week in which City must overcome a 1-0 first-leg deficit tonight before facing Spurs again, in the league, on Saturday and travelling to Old Trafford for a league derby — three fixtures that will have a major say on whether Guardiola can clinch an unprecedented quadruple.
“Definitely, yes,” said Guardiola when asked if the next seven days is the pivotal week of the campaign.
If we don’t win these games, we will be out in two competitions, they are absolute finals for us. But I had that feeling from weeks ago as well, not just for this week.
“Last season, in this period, we were already champions. But this season we have an incredible opponent in the Premier League — Liverpool. Normally the title is won with 84, 86 points and you are champion. They have 85 with games left to play.
“So both teams deserve to be champion, but one is going to get it. But of course this week we are going to mark the last three weeks of the season and we are going to go through or we are going to prepare for the FA Cup final and next season.”
First, however, Guardiola must ease his team past Mauricio Pochettino’s side after a first leg in which an early Sergio Aguero penalty miss proved so costly. Guardiola believes fans, who still routinely boo the UEFA “anthem” before every Champions League game, need to get behind the team.
“Do it for the guys,” pleaded Guardiola. “For the last 20 months, they are so proud of what they (players) have done and they deserve it.
“They are human beings and there will be bad moments in the game and in those moments, we need our supporters. At this stage, without your support, you cannot go through.
“I’m really curious [as] to how our fans will be. I played many times in that stage, I’m a ‘failure’, but many times I’ve arrived in quarter-finals and semi-finals. I want to see that they want to get to the semi-finals, not just the players, the fans too. I want to see that.”
Guardiola’s reference to himself as a “failure” in the Champions League was one of a number of such references made by the Catalan who clearly bristles at suggestions of a sub-par record in the competition.
The City manager last won the competition eight years ago. Three seasons at Bayern Munich saw him exit in the semi-final every season and, with City, he has yet to reach the final four.
Yet Guardiola insisted that he is under no pressure from the club’s owners to add the Champions League to their other successes.
“I have to win? The chairman asked me I have to win three times in a row — that was his desire,” said Guardiola, sarcastically.
“In football, you lose more than you win, you try to improve on the next fella and the fella before. We try to do our best and tomorrow we will see. Because I don’t win the Champions League, my teams when they don’t win the Champions League, they ‘fail’ all the time.
"So I’ve said many times, this competition is tough and in this competition there are many good teams. So the important thing is the way we approach it.
I know people say I came here to win the Champions League. I didn’t come here to win the Champions League, honestly.
"I came here to play with my team the way we are playing the last 20 months, that is what I came here, to play the way I want to play. And of course I want the Champions League.”
Despite the overwhelming odds stacked against City in their bid to record the first ever “quadruple”, England defender John Stones has not ruled out the possibility.
“I think it is something we are all dreaming of and all want to achieve at the club and as players and everyone involved,” he said.
“We are still on for the quadruple and that is the dream we are trying to achieve and fighting every day for. I don’t think a lot of things are impossible, that is the mindset of different people and if you don’t dream then you are not going to get anywhere near it.
“It comes from within everyone, we have this belief and ambition to do it. Like last season, 100 points, never done before. We won the league quite early and still had the belief to go on and do it.”