Porto (Portugal) (AFP) – Pep Guardiola is remaining calm with his Manchester City side one game away from finally achieving their long-held desire of winning the Champions League when they face Chelsea in Saturday’s final in Porto.
Thirteen years after a takeover by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour transformed City’s fortunes, the English champions have reached club football’s biggest game for the first time.
Guardiola arrived in Manchester five years ago and has won three Premier League titles among eight major trophies in that time.
But City had not progressed beyond the quarter-finals in his first four seasons in charge.
“When you reach the final of the Champions League you finish part of the process that started five years ago,” said Guardiola.
“I’m the happiest man in the world to be here. It’s a privilege and an honour. We are going to try to do our best to do good advertising for football and the best way is to play a good game.”
The Catalan won the Champions League in two of his first three years as a senior coach at Barcelona, in 2009 and then in 2011.
However, in the decade since he has suffered a string of dramatic exits with Barca, Bayern Munich and City.
The 50-year-old has often been accused of confusing his players by tinkering his line-ups and changing tactics when it comes to the biggest games in Europe’s premier club competition.
But that has all changed this season as he has settled on a system without a natural striker that has comfortably seen off Borussia Moenchengladbach, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain in the knockout rounds.
Guardiola hinted that Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero will again have to settle for a place on the bench with the flexible front four of Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez expected to start.
“Pep gave us more breathing space and maybe he saw that it was working and responding really well,” De Bruyne said on his manager’s new-found calm.
“That’s why people feel relaxed about the situation.”
– City the ‘benchmark’ –
De Bruyne criticised his teammates after a shock quarter-final defeat against Lyon in last season’s Champions League for failing to learn from their mistakes.
But the Belgian hailed the resilience of this City side, bolstered by the signing of Portuguese centre-back Ruben Dias for a club record fee in September.
“We made fewer mistakes. The identity of the team is the same but in the different moments we didn’t make too many mistakes,” added De Bruyne.
“This year, every time we were in a bad moment, we didn’t concede a goal we would have had in last year’s competition. That’s the difference.”
Chelsea finished 19 points behind City in the Premier League, but have beaten Guardiola’s men twice in recent months.
In stark contrast to the stability of City’s project under Guardiola, Chelsea have reached the Champions League final for the third time having changed coaches mid-season.
The appointment of Thomas Tuchel to replace Frank Lampard in January transformed their fortunes and they went on to secure a place in the Premier League’s top four while ending City’s quest for a quadruple by beating them in the FA Cup semi-finals.
However, there have been signs of Chelsea running out of steam in the final weeks of the campaign as they have lost three of their last four games.
“Man City are the benchmark over the past few years, but we are always aware in football you are able to close the gap and we did that twice already,” said Tuchel, who also revealed his players have been practicing penalties.
Chelsea lost the 2008 final on penalties to Manchester United but won the 2012 final in a shoot-out against Bayern Munich.
“We always practice penalties when we face a match where it is possible it will go to penalties,” Tuchel said.
“We have already identified the guys who should take the penalties for us. We are prepared and if we go into penalties we go in there together.”
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