The former Bayern Munich and Barcelona boss may have won the Premier League at a canter with Manchester City last season, but Pep Guardiola knows what it’s like to be in a title fight.
The nerves that get to even the world’s best players at those crucial moments. The self-doubt that creeps in when the pressure is on. Guardiola’s nine La Liga championships as a player and coach at Barcelona did not come as easily as the three Bundesliga crowns he added at Bayern Munich. He had some titanic duels, not least with Real Madrid.
It is why there was more than a hint of hope in the 47-year-old’s voice on Wednesday when he suggested that Liverpool’s title charge may well be interrupted by the odd stumble as the prize appears to be within their grasp. Jurgen Klopp’s side could crack under the pressure, Guardiola believes, and he has told his players to be ready when they do.
When I lived in Barcelona and after Bayern Munich, I know what it means for the players. I can feel what they feel, the Liverpool players. After 29 years not winning the Premier League to be there to win it, I understand. I said to the players, that’s difficult to handle. That is why this season (we have to) maintain there for as far as possible. For me, that’s an immense and a huge motivation. Why don’t we try it, to catch them up and pressure them?’ he said.
No Premier League team has been able to beat Liverpool so far this season. City came closest with Riyad Mahrez’s late penalty miss in a goalless draw at Anfield in October, and on Thursday night at the Etihad, Guardiola knows they must seize the opportunity to close a seven-point gap.
‘We know how important it is,’ he added. ‘It’s almost a final for us. If we are not able to win, especially if we lose, then 10 points – goal difference (means) 11. If they continue that run it will be so difficult. I have the feeling it is a big opportunity for us to reduce the gap. Everyone is talking if we lose, but what happens if we win? I’m a manager to play this kind of games, to see what we can do on the big stage. Everybody’s going to watch us. It will be an incredible pleasure to be there.’
After last season’s title procession, Guardiola knows he is in a very different race this time around. He is intrigued to discover how his players handle the pressure of chasing from behind after losing three of their last five Premier League games.
‘We cannot expect to be 12 or 13 points in front at Christmas,’ he said. ‘That’s happened once in our lifetime, last season. But it’s a new season and the opponent is so strong. If it is different pressure, we have to live it. We have to handle it.
If we want to grow like a club, like an organisation and like a team, we have to face this kind of games with the pressure that means.’ So can City handle it? Honestly, I don’t know, that’s the point. What do I think? Yes, we are ready. I don’t have doubts but, honestly, I don’t know.’
Liverpool’s visit to the Etihad last season ended in a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of City, but Guardiola is refusing to use that as a guide to Thursday night’s clash any more than a 2-1 defeat to Klopp’s side when the two teams met there again in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in April.
‘I cannot figure out what happened in the past is going to happen in the future. I have a feeling everyone can beat us, but also that we can beat everyone. Last year we beat them 5-0 here, but it doesn’t count now. It is Liverpool, with Manchester United the best team in England in terms of history. But we can beat them.
I know today nobody trusts us, nobody gives one coin for us. They are at the moment the best team in Europe. But we are going to fight as far as possible for our chance to win the Premier League,’ he said.