Here we go then. The next 12 days will make or break Manchester City’s season – and they face a run of fixtures that I am excited about, but dreading at the same time.
Pep Guardiola’s side have done brilliantly to get to April and still be in the hunt for the Treble, but all three trophies are on the line in the next four games, against two extremely difficult opponents – Liverpool and Atletico Madrid.
Starting on Tuesday evening, City have a horrible sequence of matches in which they play Atletico, Liverpool, Atletico, Liverpool in the Champions League, Premier League and finally the FA Cup.
I don’t think City will win all four games – they don’t have to – but for different reasons they have to go hard in the first two, which are absolutely crucial for what happens next.
Why Atletico are the last team I’d want to face
City have had some kind draws in Europe before. Not this year.
Over two legs I fancy them to beat Atletico – they are the favourites, of course – but it will come down to what happens in the first leg of their quarter-final, far more so than if they were playing anyone else.
While I’m pleased City are at home first, this is no time to be cagey. They have to really go for it and throw everything at Atletico, which brings its own risks.
We know what they are like and what their manager Diego Simeone is going to do. Atletico will come to Etihad Stadium on Tuesday to defend, to be awkward and to frustrate.
Pretty much every other away team does that at City anyway, but the difference with Atletico is that they are so good at it, and also very dangerous when they break. If there’s any team I wouldn’t want to face, it’s them.
We saw what they did against Manchester United in the last 16 – they don’t want the ball, and they are happy for you to have it, yet on the counter-attack they are lethal. As Tottenham showed a few weeks ago, that is City’s one weakness.
What is imperative is that City take a lead to Spain, preferably by a couple of goals.
If that is the case and Atletico need to come out and attack at Wanda Metropolitano next week, then City will dissect them, no problem.
But if things are still sticky by then, it is going to take an awful lot out of Pep’s players to get through – and they might not have much left in the tank.
Liverpool are already in City’s heads
The Premier League title race is now like a knockout competition too – Guardiola was right when he said at the weekend that if City lose, they are out.
There will still be seven league games left after they play Liverpool at home on Sunday but, if City lose that one, I believe the title is done.
Not because City can’t get back into it mathematically, but because of the damage done in the psychological battle.
It reminds me of when my City side beat Manchester United at home in April 2012. Vincent Kompany scored the winner and we felt like, no matter what happened, we were going to win the title. Until then, it was still in United’s hands and losing that control really hurts.
That’s why this game is the one that matters for City. From the players’ point of view, if they lose at home to Liverpool they will think they have lost the Premier League – whatever other people think.
The way City beat Burnley on Saturday, it didn’t look like they were feeling the pressure, but of course they are thinking about Liverpool, who have won 10 league games in a row to reduce the gap to one point.
You can tell that just from listening to the City players. When they drew with Crystal Palace before the international break, Bernardo Silva was asked about something different and he replied how he’d rather be in City’s position than Liverpool’s, when no-one had even mentioned Jurgen Klopp’s side.
So, yes, it is getting to them. They are thinking about Liverpool, although Guardiola might try to deny it.
You always think about your closest rivals anyway, but this time Liverpool are in their heads.
What matters most? Europe is the big one
The FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool will not just be an afterthought for Guardiola because we know he tries to win every competition.
Out of the three, the Premier League is still the biggest prize, because to win that over 38 games shows exactly how good a team you are, and how you have got the consistency you need.
But let’s not forget what Guardiola really wants here – the Champions League – and City want it too. They have won everything else, but until they land that as well, it will always be a stick to beat them with.
That makes Europe the most important thing for City this season, regardless of anything else.
|FA Cup||Liverpool||Chelsea/Crystal Palace|
|Champions League||Atletico Madrid||Chelsea/Real Madrid||Benfica/Liverpool/Villarreal/Bayern Munich|
Of course they are ready – they’ve been here before, and have been good enough to win the Champions League for a few years now, long enough to learn the best side don’t always win these ties.
If they get past Atletico, they certainly won’t be scared of the other teams – they just need to find a way of getting over the line this time.
Micah Richards was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.
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