Pep Guardiola insisted Manchester City are on the road to winning the Champions League for a first time, even if they fail to overcome a 3-0 quarter-final first leg deficit against Liverpool on Tuesday.
A hitherto spectacular second season under Guardiola for City has unravelled in the past week as they were thrashed at Anfield in the first leg, and then let a 2-0 lead slip with the chance to seal the Premier League title against Manchester United in a 3-2 derby defeat on Saturday.
“I know we are judged on results, but on the performances my team is extraordinary. It is not comparable for many others, it’s top,” Guardiola, whose side still boast a 13-point lead at the top of the Premier League, said on Monday.
“They are exceptional, so I will be close to them no matter what happens between now and the end of the season. It’s a joy to be manager of this team, even three days ago the way we played.”
City have only once before reached the last four of the Champions League and Guardiola has often spoken about needing to create a culture of European success in his near two-year reign.
But he believes a historic comeback at the Etihad could take City to a new level in the Champions League.
“We need titles in Europe, but that is so complicated. To win titles we need to start with nights like this so the people understand it.
“Maybe not tomorrow, but with what this club has done in last 10 years in terms of creating a lot of facilities. Of course with a lot of investment, but there are a lot of people working here with the desire that sooner or later that is going to happen.
“Hopefully we can do it, if it doesn’t happen this season then hopefully in the next one.”
– Salah status still unknown –
But for wasteful finishing, even a much-changed City could have been out of sight before United mounted an unlikely fightback at the weekend.
And with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero set to return to Guardiola’s starting XI, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is wary of City’s capability to rack up goals in quick succession.
“They do it always, that’s how City plays,” said Klopp, whose side lost 5-0 on their previous visit to the Etihad this season. “If you saw the first half against United in a normal game for City, against one of the best teams of the world, they could have scored six goals.”
Mohamed Salah put Liverpool in front in the tie with his 38th goal of the season last week. But the Egyptian limped off injured early in the second half, and Klopp remained coy over whether Salah will be fit to return having missed Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Everton.
“(I’m) not sure 100 percent,” said Klopp. “We train at 5pm (1600 GMT) at Melwood. I would rather yes (he plays) than no, but we have to see and wait for the reaction.”
Five-time European champions, Liverpool possess far more pedigree historically than City in the competition, but haven’t reached the last four for a decade.
And Klopp rejected the suggestion the club’s achievements of the past give them an upper hand on the current City side.
“You can ask if the experience of your grandfather helps you a lot in your life?” the German said wryly.
“We try to do our best to gain experience and tomorrow night it is again a big test for both teams. It will be interesting to see how we deal with that.”