Manchester: As their Premier League title rivals Liverpool sunned themselves in Marbella last week, Manchester City were getting muddy in Newport on Saturday to keep alive the prospect of a historic clean sweep of four trophies.
City’s focus switches from south Wales to Schalke on Wednesday for the first leg of their Uefa Champions League last-16 tie before a Wembley final against Chelsea on Sunday for the right to lift the first silverware of the season in the League Cup.
A decade into the club’s Abu Dhabi ownership, the importance for City to win the Champions League for the first time would have made it easy for the English champions to prioritise Europe this season.
However, after romping to the league with a record 100 points last year, it is another piece of history that Pep Guardiola’s side now crave by outdoing even Manchester United’s treble of league, Champions League and FA Cup in 1998/99.
Two weeks on from smashing Chelsea 6-0, City will be heavy favourites to retain the League Cup this weekend and should cruise past a Schalke side languishing in 14th in the Bundesliga to make the Champions League quarter-finals.
A 4-1 victory at Newport also secured progress to the last eight of the FA Cup and City also sit top of the Premier League on goal difference, although Liverpool have a game in hand.
“It’s better to be in this situation,” insisted Guardiola at going for four trophies rather than concentrating resources into Champions League and Premier League glory as Jurgen Klopp’s side have been able to after early domestic cup exits.
“It’s important in February to be here, in four competitions. Now we go to biggest stage, Champions League, and we will see (what happens) in May and June,” added Guardiola.
Rather than fear the accumulated fatigue of fighting on four fronts, Guardiola is embracing the challenge and at least has the luxury of strength in depth to call on.
Leroy Sane, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez all scored at Rodney Parade a week on from failing to make the starting XI in the 6-0 rout of Chelsea to make their case for a Champions League start in Gelsenkirchen.
In contrast to a stunning record of winning seven league titles in nine seasons in charge of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City, Guardiola has consistently fallen short in the Champions League since winning the competition for the second time as a coach with Barca in 2011.
Such has been the dominance of Guardiola’s sides on the domestic front, they have often had the title practically wrapped up by the time the Champions League returns in February and peaked through the winter months.
That certainly has not been the case this season as a December dip of three defeats in four Premier League games gave Liverpool hope of ending a 29-year wait to win the title.
However, a genuine title race that will not allow City to let up in the final months of the season may yet prove beneficial to their Champions League chances as long as they arrive at the latter stages more match sharp rather than shattered.
That is a risk Guardiola seems willing to take in his quest to rewrite the record books once more.
City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan began his career at Schalke’s academy, but despite having been rejected as a child after only one season, there will be no element of revenge come kick-off at the Veltins Arena.
“I have (forgiven them), but it wasn’t always so,” Gundogan told German magazine Kicker with a grin.
“At the time, due to growth spurts, I had physical problems so I dropped out. “Three or four years later, Schalke attempted to contact me, but I was a bit resentful. I just wanted to play football with my closest friends rather than be back in an academy.”
Gundogan insists the Mancunians will take nothing for granted in Germany.
“There is a danger as everyone thinks Schalke don’t have a chance and even though it’s an away game, we’re expected to dominate,” he said. “Schalke have nothing to lose — we have a lot — which raises the pressure on us.”