City boss Guardiola hailed his players’ mental strength, tipping them to “go like a machine” in the chase for an unprecedented clean sweep of Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and Carabao Cup this term.
His side coasted past hapless Fulham 2-0 at Craven Cottage on Saturday, with Bernardo Silva and Sergio Aguero on target and Guardiola predicting only seven wins from their remaining seven matches will allow them to retain the league title.
City will face Tottenham in the Champions League quarter-finals and Brighton in the FA Cup’s last four, with Guardiola relishing the clogged schedule and the pressure.
“For the semi-final and for the Champions League, being in the position in the Premier League where you know if you don’t win you are going to lose the Premier League, maybe that’s going to help us for the other competitions,” said Guardiola.
“If you are 10 points in front you can maybe be a little more selective.
“But now there’s no other option, we don’t have any other choice, so every game we have to win, if not you drop that competition.
“So that’s why sometimes to play with that pressure is nice, it’s necessary to get the best out of ourselves.
“There’s no complaints about our mentality, what happened last season and this season again.
“The players are not stupid, about the fact we’re trying something so difficult to achieve.
“The way we started to play against Fulham, they show me we want to do it.
“What’s next is Cardiff, so we’ll prepare well, and go like a machine to win, to play, and try to win. Mentally the players are ready.”
Kevin De Bruyne’s return to fitness on Saturday handed Guardiola another boost as City inch closer to a completely clean bill of health.
Fernandinho was back on the bench at Fulham, and Guardiola even admitted young star Phil Foden could feature at some stage against Cardiff on Wednesday.
“It’s really important, but he is still a little bit far away from his best condition,” said Guardiola, of Fernandinho.
“We know how well (Ilkay) Gundogan has played in his absence.
“But we need Kevin, we need of course people like Vincent (Kompany), Phil (Foden), so the next game we’re going to make a few changes.
“A few players are going to play against Cardiff, and I want the best for them.”
It appeared Jurgen Klopp’s side were about to hand the initiative to Manchester City after Lucas Moura cancelled out Roberto Firmino’s first-half header, leaving the Reds level on 77 points but significantly behind on goal difference.
However, Salah – now eight matches without finding the net – popped up at the far post to head goalwards; Hugo Lloris could only palm out weakly and Toby Alderweireld got himself in an horrendous mess to divert it back past his goalkeeper in the 90th minute.
It was a narrow escape for Klopp’s side, who return to the top of the table with a two-point lead having played one match more, having faded badly after starting so well.
Here, we rate the Spurs players.
Hugo Lloris: Could do little about Firmino’s opener but dealt poorly with Salah’s late header, leading to Toby Alderweireld’s own goal. 6
Kieran Trippier: Got caught between the full-back and wing-back roles, allowing Robertson too much space. 5
Toby Alderweireld: Did well to keep up with Liverpool’s front men and was unlucky with the late own goal. 6
Davinson Sanchez: Played centrally, the busiest of the Spurs defenders when they had five on the field, and coped well. 7
Jan Vertonghen: Did as much as anyone to ensure Salah endured a frustrating afternoon. 6
Danny Rose: A fine outlet for Spurs on the left, timing runs well and delivering dangerous crosses. 7
Christian Eriksen: Showed determination and drive to help drag Spurs back into the game. 7
Moussa Sissoko: Gave good support to attacks and broke up play but spurned a good chance late on. 6
Dele Alli: Unable to impose himself on the game and showed only glimpses of his quality. 5
Harry Kane: Was almost anonymous in the first half but later showed his class by testing Alisson and producing a fine pass in the build-up to the equaliser. 6
Lucas Moura: Was Spurs’ most positive attacking player and the equaliser was good reward for a positive display. 7
Son Heung-min (for Sanchez, 69): Entered just before the equaliser and brought fresh energy for the closing stages. 6
Ben Davies (for Moura, 82): Came on in an attempt to shore up the defence late on. 6
Fernando Llorente (for Eriksen, 90): Entered too late to make an impact. 5
The result sees the Reds go top, two points ahead of City who have a game in hand and play Cardiff City in midweek.
Roberto Firmino broke the deadlock in the 16th minute, directing a header into the back of the net following a sublime cross from Andrew Robertson. Spurs dragged themselves level with 20 minutes to play thanks to a quick free-kick from Harry Kane instigating a move that saw Lucas Moura steer in Christian Eriksen’s square ball from close range.
In the final minute of regulation time, Mohamed Salah’s header was parried by Hugo Lloris only to rebound off Alderweireld’s shin and over the line.
Here, we analyse how Jurgen Klopp’s tactics affected the game.
Goals – 2
Shots – 14
Possession – 49.5%
Tackles won – 16
Aerials won – 12
Dribbles – 4
Klopp set his side up in a traditional 4-3-3 with Firmino, Salah and Sadio Mane making up a familiar looking attack. In midfield though, security was prioritised as James Milner and Jordan Henderson started ahead of Fabinho, Naby Keita and Adam Lallana.
Mauricio Pochettino was serving the second of his two-match touchline ban following his altercation with referee Mike Dean after defeat to Burnley. The Argentine watched on from the stands as he fielded a 3-5-2 system.
Spurs began the sharper of the two sides and won battles in different areas of the pitch. However, they weren’t equipped to pose a consistent threat in the final third while Liverpool always did so even when ceding possession to their visitors over certain spells of the game.
Pochettino’s side seemed to lose confidence after the hosts struck first but grew into the game again during the second half. The encounter seemed destined to end in a stalemate before the Reds snatched a fortuitous winner at the death.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
Forcing Spurs back
Spurs operated with a very narrow midfield as Kane was partnered by Moura up front. That meant they relied heavily on their wing-backs to generate width. Klopp recognised an opportunity there to suffocate their three-man central defence and force Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose to retreat.
Liverpool’s front three are well-versed in the high-press and went man-for-man against the Spurs centre-backs. Given the away side’s insistence on playing out from the back, Trippier and Rose were forced to drop deep in order to provide passing options. If they didn’t, Spurs would end up surrendering possession. If they did, their central midfielders would struggle without options out wide.
When Liverpool did win possession, they acted to swiftly to spray it out wide where their full-backs had plenty of space to operated in. In fact, that’s precisely how they made the breakthrough with Robertson having all the time in the world to whip in a majestic cross for Firmino to nod home.
Tactically speaking, this was a pretty even battle between Klopp and Pochettino. The Liverpool boss had the better set-up, striking the right balance between defence and attack. Spurs didn’t given themselves enough options in attack but grew into the game and perhaps deserved a draw. Still, Klopp managed to get the win while their title hopes seemed to inch away from them. His constant gesturing and encouragement from the technical area had a bearing on his side – and the Anfield support. It’s not entirely about tactics.