Football game

football game: The Man City boss is keeping his players relaxed ahead of their title decider against Aston Villa with Liverpool ready to pounce on any slip-up

Pep Guardiola has kept things relaxed in the build-up to Manchester City’s biggest game of the season.

His players were given two days off at the start of the week and Ilkay Gundogan took the opportunity to fly to Copenhagen and marry his model fiancee Sara Arfaoui.

Back at work, his squad has been all smiles and boosted by the return from injury of Kyle Walker and John Stones and the luxury of no midweek fixture.

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It was the same from Guardiola in a serene pre-match news conference on Friday as he joked about allowing Manchester United fans to join in any post-match title celebrations because of their dislike for Liverpool more than their city rivals.

But as much as he tries to keep the build-up as calm as possible, he knows his players will be deadly serious when the moment comes.

“Today we trained a training session as we would in a normal game during the season,” the City boss said ahead of the match. “Nothing special.

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“It’s not necessary to tell them about the importance of the game. They know it, they feel it and, yeah, go there and do it.”

Ordinarily, City would be overwhelming favorites to beat an Aston Villa team languishing in the lower half of the table and with just two wins from their last 10 Premier League matches.

But throw in Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard as the Villa manager along with former Reds Philippe Coutinho and Danny Ings rested for the final day, and there’s plenty that can see a narrative opening up.

To cool heads an upset would still seem unlikely. The city has won their last eight matches against Villa – and has not dropped points at the Etihad Stadium against them in the Premier League since 2007.

And Guardiola will do his best to keep extraordinary out of Sunday’s encounter – until the final whistle at least.

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“I said to the players, it’s just a football game, focus on the football game, don’t think of the consequences, of how happy we will be if we win or how sad we will be if we lose, forget about it, it’s just a football game and just think about what you have to do to win against Aston Villa,” he said.

“If you think about it being one more title or one less title – yeah this kind of thing is important, everyone knows it – but it’s a football game.

“Do they play with [Ollie] Watkins or [Danny] Ings and Watkins? Does Douglas Luiz play as a holding midfielder or as a three, or not, will [John] McGinn move outside or not? This is what we have to handle, these kinds of things are what we have to think about if we want to win the game.

“With our people, as a club, we have not been here many times in our time so once we are here, should we be anxious or nervous? No. No way. Go there and try to enjoy the game, enjoy the moments.

Play of the game

“We will suffer in moments, if we concede a goal, come on, let’s go, try again, try again and the good moments continue and do it. From my little experience, this is the best way to approach these situations.”

Of course, Guardiola has plenty of experience. This would be his fourth title in six years at the Etihad, following on from three in three years at Bayern Munich and three in four at Barcelona.

This will be the ninth time that the destination of the Premier League title has been decided on the final day and the fourth occasion involving the City.

Three years ago they pipped Liverpool with a win on the last day; just as they did in 2014 under Manuel Pellegrini. The other occasion was 10 years ago when Sergio Aguero’s 94th-minute winner settled the most dramatic Premier League title race in history.

As unforgettable as it was, not many City fans could face going through it again and Guardiola would prefer it if they could forget what was at stake.

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“The day after we’ll be happy if we have won,” he said. “But my advice is to try to be happy playing football, this is more important than winning titles.

“You feel alone after two or three days. That’s all? All the effort for that? Having it on your CV is good but no more than that. It’s magnificent and then you defend over a year being a champion. Someone has to take us out.”

For Guardiola, it will make little difference to his reputation. A week after, his side will be missing from the Champions League final after their catastrophic collapse in Real Madrid and for his critics, European failure will always blight his reign.

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However, after nine months and 38 matches, he insists that winning the league gives the most satisfaction and shows who is the best even if others won’t agree.

“I’m not saying the Champions League is not important,” he added. “We’re mad, crazy to win it. We want it, we love it.

“We’d love to be in Paris next week but to win 38 games, rather than six, eight, or nine games, is different.

I “Always liked it since I was a player. The league is nice and we are on the verge of that. We are close.”

Another ordinary match, another 90 minutes of what they have done all season, and City will have their title.

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