Uefa Champions League: Pep Guardiola will seek solidity as Manchester City visit Schalke

Manager aware of criticism his teams - previously Bayern Munich and now City - tend to concede in spurts at crucial stages

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, 2nd left, with assistant Rodolfo Borrell, left, during a team training session at the City Football Academy in Manchester, England, Tuesday Feb. 19, 2019. Man City will play Schalke in the champions League round of 16 first leg match on upcoming Wednesday. (Nick Potts/PA via AP)
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Not for the first time, Pep Guardiola’s past feels pertinent.

Normally when that is the case, it is a reference to Barcelona’s seductive style of play, influenced by Johan Cruyff. Or it is a reminder of the two Uefa Champions Leagues he won at Camp Nou.

Now, while the ultimate goal remains adding a third, a more prosaic part of the Manchester City manager’s history may have more relevance. In three years at Bayern Munich, he won 82 of 104 Bundesliga games. In three seasons at City, he has overcome Borussia Monchengladbach and Hoffenheim in Champions League groups.

Now Schalke are the obstacle in the way of European progress.

They may seem a smaller hurdle than most. “We know we go into the game as underdogs,” Schalke’s former City defender Matija Nastasic said.

Fourteenth in the Bundesliga, Schalke are the only team outside the top six in their domestic league left in the Champions League. They nevertheless outperformed Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow to only concede four goals in the group stages.

Their defence was breached rather more often by Guardiola’s Bayern; Schalke drew twice, but suffered four heavy defeats, conceding 15 goals.

Wednesday night’s tie in Gelsenkirchen offers a reunion for two wingers who moved in opposite directions.

Rabbi Matondo, the 18-year-old Schalke plucked from City’s youth system in January, could make his fourth appearance for his new club against his old employers. “I’m getting more [opportunities] than I would have at City,” he said.

Leroy Sane left Schalke in 2016 but makes his first return to the AufSchalke Arena.

He sprang to prominence in Europe, a glorious goal at this stage against Real Madrid in 2015 securing a surprise win at the Bernabeu. Sane was just 19, a wunderkind who drew the scouts to Germany. Liverpool were particularly keen and Arsenal were linked. City possessed an advantage when they hired a three-time Bundesliga winner.

“Leroy is a huge talent,” Guardiola noted when in charge of Bayern. “I can only congratulate Germany on having a talent like him.”

In 2016, City had him too.

Sane was City’s match-winner when they last encountered German opposition, a December double securing a 2-1 win over Hoffenheim. He struck again on Saturday, opening the scoring in Saturday’s 4-1 win over Newport.

His presence in the starting 11 at Rodney Parade suggests he may not start on Wednesday night; Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero and Bernardo Silva could instead be recalled to form the front three.

And yet the focus might be on the other end. City went behind in both games to Hoffenheim.

It is a recurring theme. They have trailed at some stage of seven of their last nine Champions League games.

More often than not, they have displayed their powers of recovery. Yet as their previous knockout ties under Guardiola show, attacking excellence cannot always compensate for defensive deficiencies.

Two years ago, City beat Monaco 5-3 in an extraordinary game, but a 3-1 second-leg defeat, with Sane again scoring, saw them eliminated on away goals. Last year, they negotiated the last-16 tie with Basel, but a burst of three Liverpool goals in 19 minutes at Anfield in the quarter-final first leg ultimately proved decisive.

Guardiola is aware of the criticism that his teams can concede in spurts, particularly in Europe. His Bayern let in three goals in the last 17 minutes against Barcelona in 2015 and three in 19 first-half minutes against Madrid the previous year. In contrast, his 2011 champions only let in three goals in their last five matches and their 2009 predecessors two in the final four.

It is that sort of solidity that Guardiola will seek as he looks for another happy return to Germany.