Pep Guardiola has defended his side’s selection and substitute goalkeeper Zack Steffen following a horrific first-half display that ruined Manchester City’s treble chances in the Champions League semi-final FA Cup against Liverpool.
Liverpool led 3-0 at the break, thanks to a first-half performance that Jürgen Klopp called the best of his reign plus a calamitous error from Steffen, who faltered on John Stones’ back pass and allowed Sadio Mané to score with a tackle. The United States international was one of seven changes Guardiola made to the squad which started Wednesday’s bruising Champions League quarter-final at Atlético Madrid. He was adamant there was no alternative amid a grueling schedule and the pursuit of the Premier League title.
The City manager insisted: “We had a lot of matches and trips and a lot of important games and that’s why I chose the team. The first goal was a free kick, where Liverpool are so strong and score many goals, and the second was an accident. Then we conceded in the last minute of the first half, but then we showed incredible pride. We didn’t look tired after scoring because football is all about momentum. We had the clearest chances and we scored goals. It’s not easy to do that against Liverpool. We fought until the end and showed our pride.
Guardiola has confirmed that Rodri and Riyad Mahrez are fit to play at Wembley, but his other Madrid changes, including Kevin De Bruyne, all have fitness issues. He added: “Ruben [Dias] had seven weeks off, Kyle [Walker] couldn’t play and [Ilkay] Gündogan received a blow to the knee. That’s what it is when you play a lot of games. When everyone is fit, everything is fine, but playing Madrid, Liverpool, Madrid, Liverpool in a short space of time meant we had to rotate players. We know that when we get to this stage of the season and fight for the titles, it can be difficult. It was difficult today, but we reacted wonderfully and we were close to coming back.
The City manager also insisted it would have been unfair not to play against Steffen, his domestic cup goalkeeper this season, and that his mistake was a risk in line with team strategy. Guardiola explained: “I haven’t spoken to Zack. It was an accident but we need him to try because that’s how we play our football. It was an accident, it happens. Edi [Ederson] was close in the last game as well. We need to create our football, we use our goalkeeper to move our opponents in different situations. I’m sure Zack didn’t want to do it. Sometimes attackers miss in front of the keeper, other times the keeper makes a mistake. It was a decision [to play him] from a few days ago. It’s unfair when you play cuts and don’t play them. He deserves to play and afterwards he had a good game. He made good saves and he is an exceptional goalkeeper.
Klopp claimed Mane’s ‘acceleration and desire’ were more responsible for Liverpool’s second goal than Steffen’s error and hailed an outstanding first half. “I think it was [the best first-half display of his reign], that’s the feeling I had when I saw him, with the quality of the opponent. You saw in the second half how really good they are. Denying them at so many times, creating your own opportunities and using them is very difficult. The first half was exceptional in almost every part of the match.
City have apologized to Liverpool and condemned fans who chanted a minute’s silence to mark the 33rd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster before kick-off. Referee Michael Oliver cut short the planned commemoration after some City fans failed to observe the tribute.
A City spokesman said: “Manchester City are extremely disappointed with the actions of some City supporters during the minute’s silence ahead of today’s game. The club sincerely apologizes to all who are linked to Liverpool Football Club.
Klopp replied: “Of course we accept their apologies. We never thought it was Man City although there were people who didn’t understand the situation and it’s not nice and felt really wrong at that time. We can’t change that and it has nothing to do with City.