It is a 12-day period that could make or break Manchester City’s season. Double headers against Atletico Madrid and Liverpool, in their contrasting ways two of the most intense teams in world football, would be demanding enough even without the stakes that span three competitions. It is Champions League, Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup. If City end up with a treble, it will be in part thanks to the events of early April.
“There maybe hasn't been another time where there have been such big games,” said John Stones, whose six seasons at the Etihad Stadium have given him plenty of experience of high-pressure matches. “It's an important time and an exciting time. We should be positive about it.”
They encountered negativity in the first of four defining matches, the blanket defence of Atletico, which Kevin de Bruyne described as a 5-5-0 formation. Yet De Bruyne pierced it. City take a 1-0 lead to Madrid for next week’s second leg.
If they are slight favourites to reach the Champions League semi-finals, it is in part because of the platform provided by Stones. The official statistics showed Atletico with no shots of any description.
It was all the more admirable as City fielded a defence without the suspended Kyle Walker and the injured Ruben Dias. The Portuguese, the reigning Footballer of the Year, is set to miss Sunday’s meeting with Jurgen Klopp’s team.
In his absence, the comparatively old firm of Aymeric Laporte and Stones have teamed up again, with the latter feeling “good” after a groin injury meant he missed England’s friendly wins over Switzerland and Ivory Coast and was an unused substitute when City beat Burnley last Saturday.
“I've been fortunate to spend quite a few years with Ayme,” he said. “The boys that haven't been here for as long as some of us have gelled quickly and it has been a seamless transition. I can’t say a bad thing about any player that I’ve played with here. We’re so lucky.”
He may be kept busier on Sunday. Liverpool are unlikely to copy Atletico’s ultra-defensive tactics. They have the league’s top two scorers (Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota) – while Sadio Mane has a share of third place, and the leading trio in the assist charts (Trent Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Andrew Robertson). They have outscored City this season, but Guardiola’s men have a one-point lead in the table that matters most.
Manchester City 1 Atletico Madrid 0: player ratings
It offers an echo of the recent past: in 2019, they finished one clear, with 98 to 97, helped by a 2-1 win at the Etihad. And that, in turn, stemmed from a remarkable goal-line clearance from Stones that, unprompted, Klopp mentioned recently. The ball was 11mm from crossing the line. On such margins can silverware be decided.
“We’re first and second in the table, everyone knows that,” Stones said. “Three years ago it came down to the last game, so we've been in these situations before and the experience of that time we definitely learnt from. We went 14 games unbeaten and we know every game is so important to us.”
That was actually underplaying City’s brilliance in 2019 when they won their final 14 matches and Liverpool their last nine in an inspired, if ultimately fruitless, pursuit. Now Guardiola thinks the Merseysiders, who have 10 successive league victories, may not drop any other points, making it imperative City at least avoid defeat.
“We're human beings and we know what is riding on this game and how important it is to us but every game this season has been a final to us so we don't approach this any differently,” Stones said. Hype is not necessary; this is a genuinely huge match. For Stones, the challenge is to avoid thoughts about the consequences.
“We can't control when the games are and who we play,” he said. “There's obviously that extra buzz about the game and what it means but it is just another game. We don't get sucked into all the outside noise and concentrate on what we do.”