By the end of Manchester City’s stifling win over Leicester City it was hard not to wonder whether the stakes in a game between the second and third teams in the final stretch of the season had ever felt so low.
The league is gone for the champions while Leicester are nine points clear of fifth place in the race for Champions League qualification. Instead of a frantic battle between title rivals, it was just another game that will be quickly forgotten.
That will not be the case as City prepare for Real Madrid at the Bernabéu on Wednesday with everything on the line. As Liverpool flitted from view early on in the season, the Champions League had already long been the focal point for Pep Guardiola’s side. The chase is now riddled with paradoxes: it is the trophy City have wanted for years yet it is also now representative of the mortal enemy, an event administered by Uefa, the organisation the club has declared war on following their Champions League ban for breaking financial fair play rules.
Even after Real’s tepid league defeat by Levante on Saturday, facing the Spanish giants in the last 16 is a brutal task.
“It’s the real test,” Guardiola said. “The king of this competition … You have to beat Madrid, you have to beat Barcelona, you have to beat Bayern Munich. You have to beat the big clubs. So, we are going to try. If we are able, we will be so happy. If we don’t, next season.”
Guardiola’s calmness was reflected in his chuckle as he quickly corrected himself: “Next season I don’t know, but when we are able to play we are going to come back.”
For much of the season, City’s inability to compete with Liverpool domestically has been put down to the absence of Aymeric Laporte. Three games into his return from cartilage and lateral meniscus damage, the general calm the Frenchman instils in the defence is palpable and City have three clean sheets since his return.
He was mostly solid on Saturday but it was not a vintage performance. Just a few minutes into the game, his errant pass and clumsy recovery provided Jamie Vardy with a clear opportunity to put Leicester ahead. A few dangerous clearances and passes followed as he tired quickly. Before the hour mark, he signalled towards the bench and he was quickly taken off.
“He asked me to be substituted but he’s not injured,”Guardiola said. “We cannot forget four months, five months injured and they have to run a lot with Vardy, Kelechi [Iheanacho], they are so fast. It was quite different against West Ham, [he could] control it easier. But he’s OK. It’s OK.”
An uninjured player willingly departing the field is rare and Laporte’s condition was a reminder that rehab does not stop as soon as a player leaves the gym. After such a long time out, he is still building the strength in his knee as sure as he is rebuilding his fitness and regaining his touch.
“Time,” said Guardiola, explaining how he would improve. “We are four months, five months out. The rhythm is always with time and time playing. Every day he plays will be better for the next one.”