Manchester: “We are still not ready to fight for the latter stages, that is the reality,” Pep Guardiola’s reaction to beating Schalke 3-2 in the first leg of Manchester City’s Champions League last 16 tie was not that expected for the competition favourites.
City manager Guardiola was frustrated that after taking an early lead in Gelsenkirchen, his side conceded two penalties to a side ranked 14th in the Bundesliga before Nicolas Otamendi’s red card left the Premier League champions to play the final 22 minutes with 10 men.
“We gave away the first penalty, we gave away the second penalty, we gave away the red card. In this competition that is not good, too many things. When it happens in other stages, it is over.”
The fact City still had the individual talent to come from behind a man down thanks to a brilliant Leroy Sane free-kick and Raheem Sterling’s injury time winner shows why they remain on course for a historic quadruple of trophies this season.
However, for the varying degrees of glory retaining the Premier League title or winning the FA Cup would bring to add to the League Cup won last month, it is the Champions League that City and Guardiola most desire.
The Catalan coach had to field questions before the first leg against Schalke over his failure to win the competition since doing so in two of his first three years in charge of Barcelona in 2009 and 2011.
Over a decade into the club’s Abu Dhabi-backed ownership after billions of pounds invested and three domestic titles, conquering Europe remains the mountain City still have to climb.
They may also never get a better chance than in the next few months. The Champions League has rarely been so open for a new winner.
Manchester United, Tottenham, Ajax and Porto are the sides to have so far booked their place in the quarter-finals, none of whom made the last eight last season.
Real Madrid, winners for four of the past five seasons, are already out, as are free-spending Paris Saint-Germain.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus look set to follow unless they overcome a 2-0 deficit against the notoriously hard to beat Atletico Madrid, while one of Liverpool — City’s Champions League conquerors last season — or Bayern Munich — semi-finalists in six of the past seven seasons — will also be eliminated this week.
In his seven seasons at Barca and Bayern, Guardiola never failed to make the Champions League semi-finals. Only once in their history have City made the last four when they lost to Madrid three years ago.
Guardiola has used that crutch to repeatedly play down City’s chances of challenging for the Champions League in his three years in Manchester.
“Comparing to Barcelona, (Real) Madrid, Bayern Munich they have historically incredible results, we cannot compare,” Guardiola said as recently as Friday.
However, three years into his reign, City’s time to win the Champions League should be now, starting with seeing off Schalke with ease in the last 16, second leg on Tuesday.