Pep Guardiola doesn’t want to admit it publicly, but the FA Cup is Manchester City’s best chance of silverware this season. Of course, the manager would never say that, but given the gap to Chelsea at the top of the Premier League and the quality of the opposition combined with the number of rounds left in the Champions League should the Blues progress past Monaco on Wednesday, the chances of the team being successful elsewhere are much slimmer.
However, for the FA Cup, a victory at Middlesbrough on Saturday lunchtime will see them progress to the semifinals at Wembley. With one of Manchester United or Chelsea destined to go out as they meet at Stamford Bridge on Monday, the path to the final is certainly opening up. Tottenham and Arsenal would be expected to progress, too – they both face opposition from outside the top flight in League One Millwall and non-league Lincoln respectively.
“I’m not thinking about the titles,” Guardiola told reporters ahead of the trip to Teesside. “Of course, all the managers of the clubs want to fight for all the titles. We’re thinking about what we can do and how we can arrive at the semifinal.”
The manager is under no illusions that it will be an easy tie. He’s expecting to have to battle if his team are to make it to Wembley.
“One team is so difficult to create chances against them because they are so stable. They are really well organised in those terms. And of course long balls make Middlesbrough so dangerous and Adama [Traore] is so fast on the counter.
“We were not able to win [at the Etihad] in our game. The first half we played amazing, but we didn’t score a goal. In the second half, we had chances but we didn’t play like the first half and in the last minute they score a goal so we have to focus on the next game, to play as well as possible.”
The manager did concede, though, that the next week will be make or break for City’s season. Progression in the FA Cup on Saturday and the Champions League on Wednesday would set Guardiola’s side up for a strong finish to the campaign – but defeats in either, or both, could leave 2016-17 dangling into obscurity for the finals months.
“It is an important week,” the manager said. “We have done a good job in the past – especially in two competitions, but we are doing quite well in the Premier League as well – but of course this week is so, so important.
“These three games will decide what’s going to happen in the next two months – definitely.”
Guardiola appears not to care about how he’s judged from outside, regularly reinforcing the point that it’s not his job to analyse how well the season is going, but rather to get City playing better and more entertaining football. However, the analysis of his time at Bayern Munich, with a focus on trophies, seems to rankle with him.
When asked what a successful first season at City for him would be, he brought up the analysis of his time in Germany. He said: “My period in Munich was judged like a disaster because we were not able to win the Champions League. I won three leagues in a row, we won two cups from three, we arrive all the times in the semi-finals and finals, [but] it was [judged] a disaster.”
He’s well aware the same sort of thing could happen at City. Guardiola added: “I have to handle that. That’s why I am open. It’s your job to analyse what we have done. So what I can say is [we] try to play better, better, better than the previous month. That’s what I want to see for the next year, be better.”
Improved performances won’t cut the mustard, though. The Catalan knows as well as anybody that it’s how many trophies he’s got at the end of his reign in Manchester that will decide whether it was a success or failure – and he’s perfectly aware that if he doesn’t show signs of winning competitions that he could be out on his ear sooner than he anticipated.
Of course, it would be barmy for the club to spend so long coveting him for the job and then to sack him at the first few hiccups, so perhaps he’s working on a much more relaxed time limit than others in the same position would be – but it’s not an inexhaustible amount of time. He knows it, too.
“If I have no silverware, I will not be here for a long time,” Guardiola continued. “Being a manager depends on results, but I always believe deep in my heart that results depend on the way you play. That’s why I need to be convinced that we’re playing better every day. I know how it was after six or seven months here together with my periods at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
“We will be judged on the results, they make the analysis for the games and what we have done during the season. No silverware, it will not be a good season. I knew that in August.”
Guardiola isn’t going to get a much better opportunity than this season’s FA Cup to get his trophy-haul at City off to an early start. Of course, it depends on who else progresses over the course of the quarterfinals weekend, but the showpiece match at Wembley in May is almost within touching distance. Given a good draw – or even given a tough draw at this stage – City should fancy their chances.
Perhaps that could lead Guardiola into naming a stronger side at the Riverside than he might otherwise have done. He’s been keen on rotation, often dropping one or two key players for matches in recent weeks – especially as the games have come thick and fast – but his FA Cup selections have used far more fringe players than line-ups against Sunderland and Stoke. For the Premier League, there was just the odd star rested.
Ideally, he’d probably want to leave out more of the figureheads of his team ahead of a fixture list that reads like a Who’s Who of Premier League all-stars on the horizon – after that tricky second leg against Monaco, Liverpool travel to the Etihad, before City take on Arsenal and Chelsea within three days. But the manager could fight that temptation to avoid passing up a good chance of silverware.
If City were to go out to Middlesbrough with a weakened team and they ended the campaign without a trophy, it’d be a decision Guardiola would probably come to rue.
The bonus is that there can’t be a replay – and if the game does go to extra time, the boss will be afforded a fourth substitution to keep his players fresh.
If Guardiola were to make the final in his first season at City, it would be a major achievement. John Bond was the last manager of the club to get that far in the competition in his first crack at it – though his side lost to Tottenham in a replay in 1981. The Catalan might be hoping it’s not a City-Spurs final in that regard, though that same meeting 36 years earlier would hardly have much impact.
The manager is under immense pressure to deliver success to the Etihad quickly, even if he says he wants to see the team performing better than they were when he arrived. An FA Cup that’s this open at this stage might just be too good an opportunity to pass up.
Written by David Mooney
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