Pep Guardiola has revealed his belief that Manchester City can prove to be a whole different animal in this season’s UEFA Champions League, as they look to build on last season’s disappointing quarter-final exit.
Having been unceremoniously dispatched 5-1 on aggregate by Liverpool last campaign, City will look to buck the trend of their recent European failings with a solid display against Schalke 04 in their round of 16 clash on Wednesday. The Blues will play away in Gelsenkirchen in the first leg, ahead of the return fixture at the Etihad Stadium in March.
Speaking to Sky Sports in his pre-game presser, Pep was quick to state his confidence that his side had matured immensely since he took charge in the summer of 2016.
"I believe after three seasons we do better things than the first season, just for the fact we are together for a lot of games and a lot of training sessions," he declared.
"This competition is special and the teams are good. With the atmosphere in the stadiums, you have to control your emotions, suffer the bad moments.”
Despite City having struggled to replicate their dominant domestic form in their European fixtures, the Blues’ boss has faith in his charges to perform true to themselves against Die Königsblauenat at the Veltins Arena.
Knowing full well that a focused display from his side should be enough to see off their plucky German opponents, Guardiola is desperate for his side to get off to the right start.
"We must play a good game and score goals, it is so important away to score a minimum of one goal,” he enthused.
"You can't go through in these competitions if you're not yourself. Sooner or later you'll be out, here, the quarters. If you want to dream of the latter stages you have to be yourself, incredible every minute. It's a challenge."
With City not having won a European trophy since 1970, the Blues faithful will be hoping to retake their place amongst Europe’s elite.
Bernardo Silva key
On the topic of going far in the Champions League, Pep was quick to pin the club’s hopes on an unlikely hero- Portuguese international Bernardo Silva.
Having struggled to make an impact for much of last season as Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane swept up the wing positions, Bernardo has proven a revelation this campaign, being an ever-present in the Blues side and drawing plaudits all across the country for his tireless work ethic and dazzling end-product.
With 5 goals and 6 assists to his name already this season, Pep reiterated his appreciation for his number 20.
“He's a lovely guy. I love him” declared the Catalan. “For a manager I am incredibly lucky guy to have Bernardo, to enjoy him in every training session & every single game.”
Just as much a class act off the pitch as he is on it, Pep has been effusive in his praise for the younger Silva’s attitude, while heaping praise on his performances for club and country.
When asked if Bernardo could become Portugal’s next big star, the City boss had little doubt.
“He is the big star for Portugal already,” smiled Guardiola. “I think this season he is one of the best two or three players in the Premier League. He is a joy.”
Indeed, if City are to make a splash in this year’s premier European competition, they will need marathon-man Silva to continue playing at this immense level. Should he manage that, the Blues could be set for a real tilt at the trophy.
Pep’s a fraud?
In a tongue in cheek conversation towards the end of his presser, Pep was made aware that he and his achievements had caused a "massive argument on Nigerian Twitter space".
The Catalan was informed that online detractors claimed that he "has not been able to win the Champions League since leaving Barcelona" as he "does not have players like Messi, Xavi and Iniesta."
Smiling, the former FC Bayern Munich manager nodded and agreed with the online trolls, in a move bound to send online fanbases into a frenzy.
"I completely agree with them. Completely agree with them. I would not argue for one second because when I was there I said many times that I had incredible players, he gleamed.
"I did as well with Munich and Manchester but in Barcelona, I was a lucky guy, I'm sorry, I was lucky. I agree with them."
Pep guided FC Barcelona to two Champions League crowns, the first in the 2008/09 season before another soon followed in 2010/11. Barcelona beat Manchester United in the final on both occasions.