London (AFP) – Pep Guardiola may believe Manchester City remain teenagers compared to the titans of European football, but a 7-0 thrashing of a hapless Schalke to storm into the Champions League quarter-finals was another sign the English champions are growing up fast.
Already leading 3-2 from the first leg in Germany three weeks ago, a quickfire double from the evergreen Sergio Aguero ensured City would not suffer the sort of collapse that has cleared Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Atletico Madrid from their path towards a first ever European Cup.
Thereafter, it was a procession with even a real teenager on the scoresheet as 18-year-old Phil Foden came off the bench to get his first Champions League goal.
The other goalscorers are hardly veterans. Leroy Sane, 23, Raheem Sterling, 24, Bernardo Silva, 24, and Gabriel Jesus, 21, showed that City have assembled a squad built to make Champions League quarter-finals routine over the next decade.
Yet, there may be no better time than the present to finally conquer Europe with the threat of a Champions League ban looming in a UEFA investigation over alleged transgressions of financial fair play rules.
“When yesterday (Monday) I said we are a teenagers team, I didn’t mean we are not going to fight,” said Guardiola, after his side matched the record margin of victory in a Champions League knockout game.
“My reflexion was like a club we are a teenager team because the best success in the history is one semi-final and the second best success is two quarter-finals, comparing to (Real) Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, Liverpool, Juventus.
“On the other hand I like it. Teenagers have patience, have desire, they are not scared. We are going to try to achieve for the second time in our history to make the semi-finals.”
The biggest impediment to City’s chances of making it to Madrid for the final on June 1 is a devilishly demanding run of fixtures come April as they remain on course to win a historic quadruple of trophies.
Having already retained the League Cup, City hold a one-point lead over Liverpool in the tightest Premier League title race for years and face Swansea in the FA Cup quarter-finals on Saturday.
The impact of Jesus and Foden off the bench and particularly Sane, perennially dropped this season but who provided three assists on top of a goal against his former club, showed the strength in depth City have to cope.
Guardiola is less convinced. The upcoming international break is vital to get the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Fernandinho, Vincent Kompany and John Stones back fit and avoid other injuries.
“There is a huge risk for the players right now,” he warned of those leaving to represent their countries in the next two weeks.
“We are fighting eight or nine months together to live the last month with everything there (to play for) and we need the players.
“Hopefully we can achieve semi-finals of the (FA) cup, come back the people who are injured right now or we will not be able.”
Since last winning the competition with Barcelona in 2011, Guardiola’s Bayern Munich and City sides have often peaked too soon, romping to domestic titles only to run out of steam in the latter stages of the Champions League.
A run of 18 wins in 19 games since three shock defeats in a December blip suggests this time, City might be timing their run to the final furlong perfectly.
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