Guardiola calls for fan back-up as City face Shakhtar
Manchester City need support to avoid getting sidelined
Pep Guardiola: ‘We have to be pushed by everyone surrounding Manchester City that we have to win it – and we still don’t have that feeling from the fans.’ Photograph: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images
Champions League Group F: Shakhtar Donetsk v Manchester City
Kick off: Tuesday, 8pm. Venue: Donbass Arena. On TV: BT Sport 3.
As the plane carrying the Manchester City squad flew east towards the fringes of what is fast becoming Europe’s forgotten war, Pep Guardiola was on a mission to avoid seeing his side pushed to the margins of the Champions League by Shakhtar Donetsk.
City may be among the favourites to win the tournament this season but, for the moment at least, Group F is looking uncomfortably tight. They are second, one point behind Lyon and one in front of Shakhtar before they face the Ukrainian side on Tuesday night.
Moreover, Guardiola feels that if the Premier League champions are to get their hands on European football’s biggest prize, they are going to need extra backing from their supporters.
Speaking in Kharkiv on Monday, he appeared to accuse the fans of lacking crucial enthusiasm and belief with regard to the Champions League, while also suggesting City are still missing a “special” ingredient.
“We have to be pushed by everyone surrounding Manchester City that we have to win it – and we still don’t have that feeling from the fans,” Guardiola said. “I feel we’re a really good team but you still need something special to win the Champions League and still I don’t feel it. But every year we’ll get closer and sooner or later it’s going to happen.
“I grew up in Barcelona and when you start to play there they inoculate it into your blood that the only way to survive is to win. The only way to survive is to win and I have to win. I know that but I have also learned that, when you don’t win, life goes on and you have another chance in the next season.
“We will put every effort in this season to win the Champions League but, to win this competition, desire is not enough, and I saw last season – and also this season – that in many ways this club are still not ready to win it. We still don’t have enough experience in certain areas. That’s what I feel but it doesn’t mean we’re not going to try.”
City lost against Shakhtar last season in Kharkiv, where Shakhtar have taken match-day sanctuary from the fighting between Ukraine’s armed forces and Russian-backed separatists in Donbass. Some 30km from the Russian border, this part of eastern Ukraine is deemed safe.
Paolo Fonseca’s side are so close in Group F, there is no case for relaxation within the visitors’ ranks, especially given City’s stutters in the Champions League so far this season. An opening-round home defeat by Lyon was followed by a less-than-convincing win at Hoffenheim.
As much as it helps Guardiola that Kevin De Bruyne was on the flight and may start his first game following injury, Shakhtar will receive passionate support at an atmospheric arena in Ukraine’s second city. The match kicks off at 10pm local time, thereby affording City fans plenty of time to wander Kharkiv’s squares and parks before taking in its classically austere Soviet architecture.
Those returning after a few years’ absence will note not only that the once-famous statue of Lenin which once dominated Freedom Square has been toppled and demolished, but that blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags seem to flutter virtually everywhere.
When the conflict erupted, there were fears that parts of this largely Russian-speaking Ukrainian city might not mind joining Crimea in being annexed by Russian president Vladimir Putin. But instead of joining anti-government protests, Kharkiv’s inhabitants started flying those blue-and-yellow flags and making it clear they preferred to look west – to Kiev and beyond.
The level in the Champions League is much higher than the other competitions, so we have to learn
Yet as the political turmoil reached its peak in 2014 and 2015, there were bombings and shootings here, and the underlying mood remains slightly tense. If Lenin’s tumble was part of Ukraine’s overall mood of “anti-communisation”, government attempts to subdue the separatists includes the blocking of Russian television and social media networks.
The task of barring Shakhtar’s attack will fall to a City defence well staffed with left-footed players but lighter on right-sided cover. Despite Kyle Walker’s presence, he is not fully fit, and John Stones could reprise his role as a makeshift right-back against a Shakhtar side who have won 10 of their 12 league games. Undefeated at home, they have scored 31 goals, conceding six.
“The level in the Champions League is much higher than the other competitions, so we have to learn,” Guardiola said. “It looks easy but it’s not.”
At least he has Fernandinho in his midfield. “Fernandinho makes coaches the happiest and luckiest managers in the world. He’s special.”
Fernandinho also appears to possess clarity of vision regarding the scale of the task. “The next two games against Shakhtar are going to be decisive to see who goes through to the knockout stage,” he said.
“We have to be careful and try to win a very difficult game. Kharkiv is a tough place to play.”