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'Go and play!' - Pep's Man City defying nerves and fatigue at the end of 'all or nothing' title race

10:00 GMT+3 12/05/2019
Pep Guardiola Manchester City
The Blues have won every league game since January 20 despite the pressure of knowing that one slip-up would allow Liverpool to steal the title

Pep Guardiola bristled at the suggestion that Manchester City looked nervous against Leicester on Monday night.

"It was an incredible performance," he shot back. "Incredible." 

City certainly appeared nervous in their latest must-win clash, the tension from their fans clearly transmitting to the players, but as they have done in every game since they last dropped points – over two months ago – they found a way to deal with the pressure.

The stakes have never been higher in a title race, which is probably why Guardiola, who looked as nervous as anybody up until Vincent Kompany's wonder-goal, is especially keen to heap praise on his players.

"It was outstanding the way we played in the second half, especially with the character, the personality," he continued. "Knowing how difficult it is, we handled the emotions knowing that if you don't win, you will not be champions."

And without breaking stride, he got to his main point.

"Liverpool right now play without pressure because they know it is not in their hands. It is easy to play in these kind of games. We have the pressure because we can't lose because it is in our hands, but we deserve to be in that position."

Guardiola believes City have had it tougher than Liverpool. All the pressure has been on his team, not just because they know it is win or bust, but because of what follows when Liverpool play before City.

When Liverpool beat Tottenham at the end of March and Newcastle last weekend, the reaction among the City fan base and in the media was that Jurgen Klopp's side appeared destined to win the title. 

In the wake of the late victory against Spurs, Guardiola was asked about whether he felt it was fate that the Merseysiders would win the title. He joked that his reaction to the Reds' win was, "Ah s**t".

Yet City seem to have taken it all in their stride.

After that Liverpool victory over Spurs, City embarked on a daunting run of April fixtures which included an FA Cup semi-final and an all-English Champions League quarter-final, as well as their five must-win (and did-win) league games. 

In this 13-game winning streak that stretches back to January, they have had 93 shots on target and only allowed 20 on their goal. They have scored 28 goals, conceded three and kept 10 clean sheets. In three games, their opponents did not have a shot on target; in five games, their opponents had just one.

Guardiola identified three matches – against Crystal Palace, Spurs and Manchester United – as especially difficult and especially crucial. 

After winning at Selhurst Park, Guardiola said he would travel back to Manchester with one ear on the Masters golf and one on Liverpool's big game with Chelsea.

Liverpool won (again), and a few days later City suffered their cruel Champions League exit – but less than three days on they bounced back to beat Spurs in what Guardiola says was the "toughest game of the season", and then went to a raucous Old Trafford and won again.

In this sense, it works both ways; every time Liverpool have felt City could slip up, they simply haven't.

But, on Monday, Guardiola's men did seem particularly affected by the Reds' win at Newcastle. There was a tense atmosphere at the Etihad Stadium and the performance reflected it.

It would be unfair to say City have looked overly nervous in some of their other games of late, but Monday night's did follow a pattern; against Spurs and Burnley and to a lesser extent United, City did not look themselves in the first half and then battled their way to victory by keeping the ball in the corners late on.

Guardiola has an answer for that; City are not just battling the nerves and the pressure, but fatigue. Not only have they had to play after Liverpool – as the Catalan has been keen to point out – but they have had to do so with "almost two months" of extra games in their legs.

"In the last three months whenever we talk we say, 'Guys, we know if we lose we are out, because Liverpool show us the quality that they have'," Guardiola said on Friday. 

"We play nine or 10 games more than Liverpool this season; it's almost two months of competition. Sometimes with that we cannot be as nice as we would like, but even with that we were there.

"And we tell them, so against Leicester, if you don't win then Liverpool would have the ball in their hands against Wolves, but it's in our hands."

Yet perversely that only adds to the pressure heading into this final weekend. Everything City have done so far, all of those wins and all of that character, would not secure them the title if they finally stutter. The stakes have been high all season, but now it really is all or nothing.

Guardiola, though, sounds prepared.

"We didn't say anything these two or three days about the Premier League, about back-to-back, what happens if we lose, what kind of celebrations if we win," he added. "Zero. It's what is Brighton, what you have to do, how they defend, how they attack, their weak points, their strong points.

"Guys, Sunday, out there, go and play! That's all."