Man City brush off Copenhagen as they now focus on Liverpool

MANCHESTER, England — Manchester City have become so good at UEFA Champions League knockout football that manager Pep Guardiola was able to look beyond the round-of-16 second leg against FC Copenhagen and focus instead on how best to beat Liverpool.

Leading 3-1 from the first leg, Guardiola rested seven players against the Danish champions at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday in preparation for their Premier League title showdown at Anfield on Sunday. And yet with a near second-string on the pitch, City were still 2-0 up inside 10 minutes, eventually winning 3-1 to stroll into the quarterfinals.

It took Manuel Akanji just four minutes and 30 seconds to score the first goal, the only surprise being that it took so long given that the Copenhagen manager, Jacob Neestrup, suggested before kick-off that he aimed to boost Denmark’s UEFA coefficient with a draw rather than try to win and go through.

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By the time Julián Álvarez‘s shot slipped through the hands of Kamil Grabara and into the net less than five minutes later, Guardiola would have been forgiven if his mind was already concocting plans for Mohamed Salah and Darwin Núñez.

“This competition is so tricky, so dangerous,” said Guardiola. “I said to the players, I will not convince you, but we went through against a difficult team. They are a difficult opponent, well organised. I’m really pleased for the performance. We scored two early goals which helped us a lot. One more year we are in the best eight teams in Europe and we will be there in the draw [for the quarterfinals].”

Coasting through Champions League ties is a luxury only afforded to the most dominant teams. For the seventh season in a row, City are into the quarterfinals — the longest active run in Europe. Guardiola’s team have only lost one two-legged knockout tie in the last five years and have reached at least the semifinals every year since 2021.

The reigning champions are favourites to win it again at Wembley in June and there has been very little so far to suggest that prediction is wrong, even with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich lurking elsewhere in the tournament. City knocked out both en route to winning the competition for the first time in their history last season.

When City began to regularly qualify for the Champions League more than 10 years ago, they used to fear being drawn against the continent’s heavyweights. Now they are the team to fear.

“I said to the players, for me, every time we go through, wow, I know how difficult it is,” Guardiola said. “Today, Real Madrid suffered to go through against RB Leipzig. The people take it for granted. That is good. Our standards are there but we know internally it is difficult and everything is so complicated.

“We respect incredibly the opponents but we have the feeling the opponents see Man City and say OK it will be a big battle.”

After five title wins in the last six years, the same is true in the Premier League and the last thing Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp needs is a rested City team arriving at Anfield this weekend.

Kyle Walker, John Stones, Nathan Aké, Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, and Phil Foden — who all started the win over Manchester United — were named on the bench against Copenhagen while another, Jérémy Doku, wasn’t risked at all.

After City raced into a two-goal lead, Mohamed Elyounoussi pulled a goal back for Copenhagen midway through the first half but with Erling Haaland making it 3-1 just before half-time, Guardiola felt confident enough to remove Rodri — perhaps his most important player — ahead of the second half.

Rúben Dias, another sure starter at Anfield, was substituted before the 70-minute mark and Haaland came off before the end. By the final whistle, the only players on the pitch likely to start against Liverpool were Stones — himself on as a second-half substitute — and Éderson.

“[I’ll talk] about Liverpool on Friday,” said Guardiola, when attention quickly turned to City’s next game. “Today I need energy and fresh legs, you don’t know how tired and exhausted my players were.

“Normally when you play Wednesday they allow you to play on Saturday. We play on Sunday. We need fresh legs. We were fortunate, lucky to score two goals early.”

Even for serial winners like City, Anfield remains a formidable place to go. They’ve only won once there in more than 20 years and no manager can better Klopp’s 12 wins over Guardiola. Klopp, though, still has a Europa League tie against Sparta Prague to worry about on Thursday before he can focus on making it 13. Guardiola, meanwhile, was thinking about Liverpool even before kick-off against Copenhagen, and as far as big-game preparation goes, he couldn’t have asked for much more from City’s warm-up.