Pep Guardiola regards the second leg of a Champions League semifinal as the toughest game in soccer, and he has the battle scars to prove it.
It was at that decisive stage that Guardiola came up short in each of his three years at Bayern Munich, from 2013-16. In one of those second legs, Bayern was crushed by Real Madrid 4-0.
Go back a further two years — to the last of his four seasons at Barcelona — and Guardiola suffered one of the most painful results of his career in a semifinal second leg: A dramatic 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Camp Nou, where Barca surrendered a two-goal lead against an opponent playing with 10 men for nearly an hour.
Indeed, it’s a decade since Guardiola has celebrated advancing from the Champions League semifinals. So maybe there’s some apprehension — surely some nerves — as he takes Manchester City into the second leg against Paris Saint-Germain, even with his team holding a 2-1 lead?
Not a bit of it.
“It’s the first time we are here, for most of us in this club,” Guardiola said on Monday, a day before perhaps the biggest European game in City’s history. “Of course I know what we are playing for, but in these types of games, you don’t need much emotion.
“It’s more about being calm. Knowing exactly what you have to do.”
For Guardiola, the second leg of the semifinals is as much a mental examination as a physical one. Some players have the result of the first leg in their minds, others might think about the prospect of playing in a final.
So, his biggest task over the past two days has been to keep his City players in the moment.
PSG, Guardiola insisted, hasn’t been mentioned at all.
“It’s not necessary,” Guardiola said. “We just speak about us, us, and us, and what we have to do.
“I didn’t speak one word about them.”
Perhaps the confidence Guardiola demonstrated in his pre-match news conference stemmed from the way City stymied PSG and its world-class forwards Kylian Mbappe and Neymar in the second half of the first leg, when City came from 1-0 down with a display of maturity and assuredness.
As City grew, PSG became reckless, Mbappe and Neymar got frustrated, Idrissa Gueye got a red card, ruling PSG’s best holding midfielder out of the return game at Etihad Stadium.
City center back John Stones will be tasked with keeping Mbappe and Neymar quiet again, and he is embracing the challenge.
“The character and the resilience to come from behind, it’s something not easy to do, and after the game we felt great pride and self-satisfaction,” Stones said. “Those moments, especially those big moments in the Champions League, are something we can thrive off and bring into the next 90 minutes tomorrow.”
Indeed, Guardiola, who reported no new injury concerns for City, attempted to take some pressure off his team by comparing the size of the match to a typical English Premier League game.
“We are not going to demand anything special,” he said. “We play tough, tough games in the Premier League, the same level as PSG, because the Premier League is so demanding and tough. Even in the Champions League in the group stage.”
A 2-1 advantage could leave some teams caught in two minds, whether to sit on a lead or go for the kill.
For Stones, there’s only one option as City looks to reach its first Champions League final and move within one step of realizing the long-held goals of its Abu Dhabi ownership.
“We have to attack the game like we would every other game, to go out and win,” he said. “We have never gone into a game, if we are in a good position, thinking we need to to sit there and think the job’s done or defend or anything like that.
“It’s a downward spiral if we go into the game like that.”
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