Why Guardiola risked resting De Bruyne & Sane - and how he must now justify his decision

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The Catalan decided that the first leg of Manchester City's Champions League quarter-final was the least important of their upcoming April fixtures

Let it never be said again that Pep Guardiola does not have a Plan B, or that he is not pragmatic.

Sources have told Goal that the Manchester City boss set out for a tight game against Tottenham on Tuesday night, and would have been happy with a goalless draw.

Ironically, given the Champions League is now a knockout competition, Guardiola regards City’s remaining Premier League fixtures as the real ‘finals’ and, according to sources close to his coaching staff, he has identified the clashes with Crystal Palace, Tottenham and Manchester United in the next fortnight as especially big games.

City lost 3-2 to Palace at the Etihad Stadium in December and drew at Selhurst Park last season, meaning Guardiola has placed more importance on winning in south east London on Sunday than he did on winning in north London on Tuesday.

In midweek, he effectively tried to get away with leaving Kevin De Bruyne on the bench and Benjamin Mendy in the stands, and asking his team to play in a manner that would not have resulted in a heavy defeat.

In the end City did lose, but it was decided before kick-off that by playing a tight game – as they did against Liverpool at Anfield this season – Tottenham would not be able to rack up a scoreline that would have ended the tie on the night.

That was also why De Bruyne and Leroy Sane did not come off the bench until the 89th minute. Guardiola, surprisingly given his reputation, did not want to encourage his side to go all out for an equaliser so they could avoid conceding a second goal.

Pep quote

That helps to explain why Riyad Mahrez started, too. He was selected in part because he was seen as more capable of carrying out the team's defensive orders on the night, particularly at tucking into midfield and helping City stay compact.

Sane has many strengths but they were not suited to what Guardiola asked his side to do on the night – which is the entire debate around the match. For all of the individual selection complaints, the negative gameplan has earned Guardiola the most criticism.

For many fans and pundits, it simply made no sense for City to change their approach, given they play their attacking style so well. The most common argument is that they could have won comfortably had they stuck to their usual strategy.

Perhaps that is right, and perhaps, in that sense, Guardiola did ‘overthink’ his selection.

Given his record in away Champions League knockout games over the years, and some of the line-ups he has chosen, maybe there is something in that theory.

But perhaps this game did require a high level of thought. For one thing, City have looked very open in the Champions League this season, not just in years gone by against Liverpool and Monaco.

Secondly, City find themselves in a very particular situation right now: they are not just playing for the Champions League; they are playing for the lot.

And had Sergio Aguero’s penalty gone in the entire tie – and narrative – would have been completely different. Instead, Aguero missed and City went into their shells, according to Ilkay Gundogan.

"We broke down after we missed our penalty,” the Germany international said afterwards. “Negative events like that always set us back far too much.

"Had we scored from the penalty, we'd have torn Tottenham to pieces. But instead we withdrew from the game. That is something a great team cannot do.”

Ilkay quote

That is exactly what Guardiola decided that his team needed to improve upon last April, after bruising defeats against Liverpool and United. It is also another reason why Guardiola chose to make the game tight.

Not that all of Guardiola’s decisions on the night made sense, even with the benefit of his reasoning.

The inclusion of Fabian Delph at left-back, for example, raised eyebrows before the game and was highlighted afterwards, given the England international was most at fault for Heung-min Son’s goal.

Danilo was fit to play, and sources close to the Brazilian say he is confused as to why he was left out of the squad. Guardiola insisted Delph had worked well in training, but given his last two starts have resulted in a red card and a penalty conceded, it is no surprise he was caught out.

But even the seemingly strange decision to wait until the 89th minute to bring on De Bruyne and Sane was rooted in a desire to give City the best chance of progressing in all competitions – even if it was startlingly negative.

Not only did Guardiola not want to encourage his side to attack and leave themselves exposed to counter-attacks, he was also keeping De Bruyne fresh for the true ‘knockout’ league games with Palace, Spurs and United in the next fortnight.

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Sane, due to Bernardo Silva's injury, is also said to have been rested for Selhurst Park.

So, Guardiola has certainly put a lot of thought into this crucial run of games. Perhaps even too much.

But how it affects City's quadruple push is yet to be known. Their performance on Sunday will give a big indication, however.