‘It’s just a game of football’ – Guardiola tries to keep it ordinary on extraordinary final day
Pep Guardiola has kept things relaxed in the build-up to Manchester City’s biggest game of the season.
His players were given two days off earlier this week and Ilkay Gundogan took the opportunity to fly to Copenhagen and marry his model fiancée Sara Arfaoui.
Back at work, his team were all smiles and boosted by the return of Kyle Walker and John Stones from injury and the luxury of not having a midweek game.
It was the same from Guardiola in a serene pre-match press conference on Friday as he joked about allowing Manchester United fans to join in on all the post-match title celebrations. game due to their dislike of Liverpool more than their city rivals.
But while he tries to keep the build as calm as possible, he knows his players will be deadly serious when the time comes.
“Today we trained as we would in a normal game during the season,” the City manager said before the game. “Nothing in particular.
“There is no need to tell them about the importance of the game. They know it, they feel it and, yes, go ahead and do it.”
Ordinarily, City would be overwhelming favorites to beat an Aston Villa side languishing in the bottom half of the table and with just two wins in their last 10 Premier League games.
But add Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard as Villa manager with former Reds Philippe Coutinho and Danny Ings rested for the final day, and there’s plenty that can see a narrative open up.
To cool heads, an upheaval would still seem unlikely. City have won their last eight games against Villa – and haven’t dropped a point at the Etihad Stadium against them in the Premier League since 2007.
And Guardiola will do his best to avoid the extraordinary of Sunday’s encounter – at least until the final whistle.
“I told the players, it’s just a football game, focus on the football game, don’t think about the consequences, how happy we will be if we win or how sad we will be if we win. let’s lose, forget it, it’s just a game of football and think about what you have to do to win against Aston Villa,” he said.
“If you think it’s one more title or one less title – yes, that sort of thing is important, everyone knows that – but it’s a game of football.
“Do they play with [Ollie] Watkins or [Danny] Ing and Watkins? Does Douglas Luiz play as a starting midfielder or as a three or not will [John] McGinn is moving or not? That’s what we have to deal with, that kind of stuff is what we have to think about if we want to win the game.
“With our people, as a club, we haven’t been here many times in our time, so once we’re here, should we be anxious or nervous? No. No way. Go ahead and try to enjoy the game, enjoy the moments.
“We’re going to suffer at times, if we concede a goal, come on, let’s go, try again, try again and the good times continue and do it. From my little experience, that’s the best way to approach these situations.”
Of course, Guardiola has a lot of experience. It would be his fourth title in six years at the Etihad, after three in three years at Bayern Munich and three in four at Barcelona.
It will be the ninth time the Premier League title destination has been decided on the final day and the fourth occasion involving City.
Three years ago they beat Liverpool with a victory on the final day; just like they did in 2014 under Manuel Pellegrini. The other occasion was 10 years ago when Sergio Aguero’s 94th-minute winner settled the most dramatic Premier League title race in history.
Unforgettable as it is, few City fans could walk through it again and Guardiola would rather he could forget what was at stake.
“The next day we will be happy if we won,” he said. “But my advice is to try to be happy playing football, it’s more important than winning titles.
“You feel lonely after two or three days. That’s all ? outside.”
For Guardiola, it will make little difference to his reputation. A week later, his team will be absent from the Champions League final after their catastrophic collapse at Real Madrid and for his critics, European failure will always ruin his reign.
However, after nine months and 38 matches, he insists winning the league gives the most satisfaction and shows who is the best even if others disagree.
“I’m not saying the Champions League isn’t important,” he added. “We are crazy, crazy to win it. We want it, we love it.
“We would like to be in Paris next week, but winning 38 games, rather than six, eight or nine games, is different.
“I’ve always liked it, ever since I was a player. The league is beautiful and we’re about to get there. We’re close.
Another ordinary game, another 90 minutes of what they’ve been doing all season and City will have their title.