“We have a lot of games on our shoulders and obviously that takes its toll,” said Rodri after Manchester City edged a bruising Champions League quarter-final with Atletico Madrid.
If you were to offer City an aggregate win over Atletico, as well as a Premier League draw with title rivals Liverpool in between, they’d have probably taken it 10 days ago. Add an FA Cup semi-final win over Liverpool on Saturday, and City will be delighted with how their most intense week of the season has progressed.
Even if they fall short in the cup, it’s the result they’d have been most willing to sacrifice — not that it was ever a realistic option for Pep Guardiola. This week’s Champions League quarter-finals have thrown a new dynamic into the Wembley narrative, however. There’s a potential Champions League final showdown between City and Liverpool to consider.
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Both sides were probably relieved to have been kept apart in the quarter-finals and semi-finals draw in Europe, especially with City having to beat Atletico, and then one of Chelsea or Real Madrid to set up a prospective final with one another. Liverpool’s draw was slightly easier, but an expected semi-final with Bayern Munich would be a huge obstacle.
Except while Liverpool beat Benfica as everyone thought they would, Bayern didn’t hold up their side of the bargain against Villarreal, seventh in La Liga. Liverpool have now gone from 50/50 contenders to strong favorites to reach the Champions League final again, while City will be slight favorites against Real Madrid, but they know they are facing the ultimate experts in the competition.
Still, the chances of a City vs Liverpool final in Europe have increased, and that will have a knock-on implication for Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final.
It will no longer be a one-game shoot-out to try and get to the cup final, with the chance to temporarily park Premier League title ambitions. City knew they could afford to draw the league fixture last week, while Liverpool were also wary that defeat would effectively end their own title chances. On Saturday, both teams must try to win with an all-or-nothing attitude.
Perhaps there is a reason to be cagey, though. If these sides will meet again in the Champions League final, would they be revealing their hand in a one-off knockout game early at Wembley? They have met in the Premier League and a two-legged Champions League game in recent years, as well as a Community Shield with chances for both sides. But this is effectively new territory for the current era of City-Liverpool fixtures.
Both managers will tell you that they are only focussed on reaching the FA Cup final — not the Premier League title race, and certainly not a Champions League final neither have qualified for. But both are also targeting at least a treble, and if they can take an early advantage to winning the most difficult part, they’ll do it.
A big defeat for either side would give the victor an advantage in the run-in, and maybe now the Champions League too. Liverpool will be fresher on Saturday and will want to record a first win in six over City, and only their second in 10, while City will be aware three of the last four meetings have ended in draws.
There is so little to separate these sides, don’t expect Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp to give the other any advantage at Wembley for a potential Champions League final that could define both managers’ legacies.