Pep Guardiola has told his Manchester City side they are now into “must-win” territory in their three-pronged bid for silverware this season.
City top-scorer Sergio Aguero’s 23rd goal of the campaign and a third in as many matches from German midfielder Leroy Sane sealed a comfortable 2-0 Premier League win at struggling Sunderland on Sunday as Guardiola’s team reclaimed third place and were left eight points behind leaders Chelsea.
Victory at home to Stoke City on Wednesday will push Manchester City into second place, above Tottenham Hotspur, in what promises to be a tense final two months to the season, with Guardiola’s men still in both the Champions League, where they take a 5-3 first-leg last 16 advantage to Monaco, and the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, where they face Middlesbrough.
The former Premier League champions have hit form at just the right time, with seven wins in their last eight games boosting their hopes of ending the campaign with another trophy to add to the growing collection at the Etihad Stadium.
“We’re coming into some good form and making results, and that’s important at this stage of the season,” said Manchester City manager Guardiola, whose side have lost just one of their 11 games in 2017.
It’s an impressive run the Spaniard feels City have to maintain in their quest to cut the significant deficit on Antonio Conte’s league leaders, who can extend their advantage with victory at West Ham on Monday.
Guardiola added: “We’re coming to a stage of the season now in March and April where with every game if you win you stay, if you lose, then you’re out. Be that in the Premier League, in the Champions League or the FA Cup.
“The players know that, we know, and the club knows that if we don’t win the next game, then we’ll be out.”
– ‘Don’t imagine big targets’ –
City face a pivotal trio of league fixtures against Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea starting later this month that will have a massive bearing on their hopes of landing their latest domestic title.
“That’s why we have to continue on this run,” Guardiola added. “Up next comes Stoke City and that’s so important for us and we’ll need our supporters right behind us so that we can reach the games against Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea with this unbeaten record and try to maintain that level against the good teams in the Premier League.”
He refused to rule out catching Chelsea, saying: “It’s up to others to judge our performance. We don’t think to imagine the big targets and the big objectives, we just try to win the next game.”
Even in a low-key display, City had too much quality against a Sunderland side who remain bottom, six points adrift of safety, after winning just one of their last 10 Premier League games.
They face another game in March, before a key run of fixtures in April that will go a long way to deciding their fate in what is a fifth consecutive relegation battle for the northeast club, who have made a habit of escaping the drop into the Championship in recent years.
“April looks to be a really big month for us,” said Sunderland manager David Moyes after seeing his side stretch their wait for a home league win to more than three months.
“We don’t want to be adrift by then, but we’ve only got one more game left in March with the way the fixtures have fallen.
“The heartening thing is that by the start of April we will hopefully have some key players back, the likes of Victor Anichebe, Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff,” the former Everton and Manchester United manager explained.
“If we can get the troops together in the final six or seven weeks of the season, then I think we’ve got a good chance of staying up.”