“What can happen?” Pep Guardiola asks, before plotting the worst-case scenario. “Lose a game? And lose the Premier League title? Then we’ll just try again next year.”
Manchester City’s manager has just provided an impassioned rendition of the message he shares with his players – “don’t miss these moments, don’t waste opportunities, enjoy it because you deserve it for your hard work” – but isn’t his preaching of pleasure at odds with the need to be near-perfect?
England’s champions, one point ahead of Sunday’s opponents Liverpool – their foes in the FA Cup semi-finals and an obstruction to their Champions League ambitions – are under enormous pressure amid the possibility of a treble. There is no margin for error, no tolerance for missteps, and no easing of expectations.
The tense showdown at the Etihad has an all-or-nothing filter. Can enjoyment actually exist in these circumstances?
“People say it, and it’s true – in life, there are more important things,” Guardiola says Sky Sports News. “I will be sad if we lose a game not being ourselves. But if we are who we are and the opponent can win – it’s ok. We are fortunate to live at this moment. Maybe I should feel the pressure now, but I don ‘t. “
Guardiola cannot deny that this decisive fixture with quadruple-chasing Liverpool – the most absorbing encounter in the division and arguably anywhere – is painted with a unique edge.
“At the beginning of the season and then two or three months ago, I said, ‘what date is Liverpool? When do we play against them?'” He says.
“Of course everything is different because we know it’s seven games left and we are only one point ahead.
“Winning will not be enough, but it will be an important step. And we know w ‘wow, this is the game’. You know it, we know it. So I’m not going to deny it’s different to any other game And the preparations are a bit different, you know, especially because they do something that no other team in all around the world do – the movement they have.
“The threats that they have in front – they had an incredible three players (Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino) and now an incredible five with Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota. Plus Divock Origi who always scores when they need to make decisive goals .
“We don’t have a proper striker, but it is what it is. We still score a lot of goals in our way, we still concede a few, so we’re going to continue to do it.
“We have to work on what we need to do, to talk about it and prepare for it. But at the end, I still sleep, wake up in the morning, have breakfast, lunch, dinner
“So I prepare the training session, then I’m going to rest a little and be completely relaxed in front of the TV, watching Tiger Woods and Tommy Fleetwood.”
Guardiola evidently cuts a calmer, more introspective figure despite the strains of the City’s upcoming spell and the fresh reports from Der Spiegel on the Premier League’s investigation into the club’s finances.
Before sitting down for this exclusive interview, he told reporters he hasn’t “spent one second” thinking about the allegations because “I can’t control what comes from outside.”
Understanding he cannot be in command of everything has been part of Guardiola’s evolution.
“When I was in my early years in Barcelona, I was more anxious about everything, more sensitive to everything,” he admits. “Now I handle situations a little bit more calmer.
“I’ve learned a lot at City. I’m a completely different manager and I feel I’m a better manager than when I started out because of the experiences.
“In Germany and Spain and now here, it’s been completely different challenges. I would say that’s nice otherwise it would be so boring doing the same thing.
“You can’t have the same ideas of 12 or 13 years ago, you become lazy, and you are not scared. You don’t have the intuition or the desire to think ‘oh, maybe we do it like that’ even though maybe it will be a mistake.
“Always you have to make some evolution during the process. Evolution you do it to try to have success, yes – but especially, so you don’t get bored all the time doing the same at the end.
“Life is about experiences and learning to improve different things.”
City and Liverpool have been masters of tweaking their blueprints while redesigning what it takes to win the top flight. Since the summer of 2018, their respective points hauls read 338 and 337, despite Guardiola having to wave goodbye to an influential old guard and Jurgen Klopp transforming his team from a blitz machine to steely monsters.
City’s boss pins the ability of both clubs to shape-shift but remain successful on “the good organization of both institutions behind the scenes”.
When another powerhouse in Manchester United is so enthralled by the concept of a messiah as manager, it is worth underscoring the two best in this league and the world are quick to credit the structures in place.
There has been a debate over whether the sheer excellence of City and Liverpool – how the pair have elevated the requirements for success while consistently serving up high-quality football domestically and on the continent – has marked them out as the league’s greatest rivalry.
They stand alone, having pushed each other to unrelenting levels. The argument against bestowing the pair with that status is the fixture lacks pure animosity between the leading protagonists, as was seen in the days of Sir Alex Ferguson’s United jostling with Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal.
“In my period here, what I will remember is the rivalry with Liverpool. That’s for sure,” Guardiola says.
“We raised the standards. We got 100 points, before that example was around 80 to 91. After we got 100 it was 98, Liverpool with 97 and then 99. So now teams know you have to go 90-100 points to have the chance to be champion.
“We write that level and we pushed each other. Sir Alex and Wenger have been there so many years together – 26 and 22 – we are here with less time doing this.”
Guardiola enjoys the fact that City’s battles with Liverpool center around tactical supremacy rather than food fights or feuding through the media. The antagonism that exists between the clubs colors the boardroom and the terraces, but does not stretch to the coaching staff and playing personnel.
“Since we were together in Germany, I’ve said that for the way his teams play and for the way he behaves, I think Jurgen makes the football world a better place to live,” Guardiola says.
“So I enjoy to watch Liverpool. It’s a big, big challenge with them and I love to face the toughest opponent as possible and to try to beat them.
“I personally, and I don’t talk on behalf of Jurgen, but I prefer the silence.”
It may be a rivalry on mute with verbal volleys, but Sunday’s crunch clash at the Etihad will be anything but quiet.
Manchester City’s huge Premier League clash against Liverpool takes place on Super Sundaylive on Sky Sports.
With just one point currently separating champions City and Liverpool at the top of the table, the outcome is likely to have major implications for the race title.
Coverage at the Etihad Stadium starts at 4pm on Sky Sports Premier League & Main Eventwith kick-off at 4.30pm.
There will be a bumper line-up in the Sky Sports studio with Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher, Roy Keane and Micah Richards all in attendance.
To be rearranged: Wolves Premier League
April 10 – Liverpool (h) Premier Leaguelive on Sky Sports
April 13 – Atletico Madrid (a) Champions League QF second leg
April 16 – Liverpool (Wembley) FA Cup semi-finals
April 20 – Brighton (h) Premier Leaguelive on Sky Sports
April 23 – Watford (h) Premier League
April 26/27 – Chelsea / Real Madrid Champions League SF first leg *
April 30 – Leeds Premier Leaguelive on Sky Sports
May 3/4 – Chelsea / Real Madrid Champions League SF second leg *
May 8 – Newcastle (h) Premier League, live on Sky Sports
May 14 – FA Cup final *
May 15 – West Ham Premier League, live on Sky Sports
May 22 – Aston Villa (h) Premier League
May 28 – Champions League final *
* Subject to progress