Pep Guardiola has told his Manchester City players to take what could 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 the second consecutive year. Real arrive as record 13-time winners but Guardiola wants his side to seize the opportunity.
“We have to be so precise against them,” he said on Monday. “I said to the players: ‘Enjoy it, get ready for the game. It could be once in a lifetime [experience], nobody knows.’ It makes no sense not to 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 relentless winning culture. “That’s why the big clubs stay there for a long time. When you win, take a shower and go. We learn that. I felt that at Barcelona as a young boy and we try to build that culture where we have to win every game and fight to win every game.
He is aware that City should forget Real’s pedigree and simply play in Carlo Ancelotti’s side. “The story is there – we can’t change it but it’s 11 against 11,” Guardiola said. “The players will decide that. We are playing against a team that has been here many times, that’s why they have this history and we don’t. We can’t imagine what will happen but it’s 11 against 11 so it’s the way the players move, their mental strength that will make the difference. Carlo and I will not win. Players will.
“If we have to compete with history we have no chance, they are better, that speaks for itself. But we have the desire to play against them and pass this incredible test and we want to improve. We will suffer together and then, when we attack, we will do it as well as possible. It would be the same against Bayern Munich or Barca. They have been there several times. Before the last decade, we were never there. Reach 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 they were now an elite club and so, in a sense, it was mission accomplished for him. “Look, as long as I’m a manager, it will never come true, I will have another dream or another goal. We try to do our best, to suffer together when we play badly, hoping for as few minutes as possible. This is why I do my job.
It 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 1-0 on aggregate. City knocked out Real in the last 16 seasons two years ago, but this time Guardiola is worried about who he can select in defense on Tuesday. First-choice full-back João Cancelo is suspended while Kyle Walker, John Stones and Nathan Aké face late fitness tests.
“These are doubts, John hasn’t trained since Brighton [last Wednesday]”, Guardiola said. “Kyle hasn’t trained for 10 days. We’ll see how they feel and I’ll talk to them and make a decision on D-Day.
Raheem Sterling was seated next to Guardiola during Monday’s press conference. His 23 Champions League goals rank him as England’s third-highest goalscorer in the competition, but there have been talks over his future with his contract expiring next year.
“Right now I’m just happy to play, happy to contribute to the team,” Sterling said. “I think that’s the most important thing. At this time, I think it would be selfish of me to talk about any contractual situation – I’m happy to play 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 you move on. It’s scoring your first goal, then after scoring your first goal, as a human you always have to try to do better and that’s my case every season.
“I’m trying to see how I can improve and improve in all these things that come up. I was trying to see if I could get the England record [of 30] and that’s what I’m going to try to do.