Pep Guardiola defended his team selection and stand-in goalkeeper, Zack Steffen, following a dreadful first-half display that ruined Manchester City’s Treble chances in the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool.
Liverpool led 3-0 at the break, courtesy of a first-half performance that Jürgen Klopp labeled the best of his reign plus a calamitous error by Steffen, who dithered on John Stones’s back pass and allowed Sadio Mané to score with a tackle. The US international was one of seven changes Guardiola made from the team that started Wednesday’s bruising Champions League quarter-final at Atlético Madrid. He was adamant there was no alternative in the midst of a gruelling schedule and pursuit of the Premier League title.
The City manager insisted: “We had a lot of fixtures and travels and a lot of important games and that’s why I picked the team. The first goal was a set piece, where Liverpool are so strong and score many goals, and the second was an accident. Then we conceded a goal in the last minute of the first half, but afterwards we showed incredible pride. We didn’t look tired after we scored because football is about momentum. We had the most clear chances and we scored goals. It is not easy to do that against Liverpool. We fought to the end and showed our pride.”
Guardiola confirmed Rodri and Riyad Mahrez were fit to play at Wembley but his other changes from Madrid, including Kevin De Bruyne, all had fitness problems. He added: “Ruben [Dias] has had seven weeks off, Kyle [Walker] couldn’t play and [Ilkay] Gundogan had a knock on the knee. It is what it is when you play a lot of games. When everyone is fit we are OK, but to play Madrid, Liverpool, Madrid, Liverpool in a short space of time meant we had to rotate players. We know when we arrive at this stage of the season and we are fighting for titles it can be hard. It was difficult today – but we reacted in a marvelous way and we were close to coming back.”
The City manager also insisted it would have been unfair not to play Steffen, his domestic cup keeper this season, and that his mistake was a risk in keeping with the team’s 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. Eddie [Ederson] was closed in the last game as well. We need that to create our football we use our keeper to move our opponents into different situations. I’m pretty sure Zack didn’t want to do it. Sometimes the strikers miss in front of the keeper, other times the keeper makes a mistake. It was a decision [to play him] from days ago. It is unfair when you play cups and you don’t play them. He deserves to play and after that he had a good game. He made good saves and is an exceptional keeper.”
Klopp claimed Mané’s “acceleration and desire” were more responsible for Liverpool’s second goal than Steffen’s error and lauded an exceptional first half. “I think it was [the best first-half display of his reign], that was the feeling I had when I saw it, with the quality of the opponent. You saw in the second half how good they really are. Denying them in so many moments, creating your own opportunities and using them is very difficult. The first half was outstanding in pretty much all parts of the game.”
City apologized to Liverpool and condemned supporters who chanted during a minute’s silence to mark the 33rd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster before kick-off. Michael Oliver, the referee, cut short the intended commemoration after some City fans failed to observe the tribute.
A City spokesperson said: “Manchester City are extremely disappointed with the actions of some City supporters during the minute’s silence before today’s game. The club sincerely apologises to all those connected with Liverpool Football Club.”
Klopp responded: “Of course we accept their apology. We never thought this was Man City although there were some people who didn’t understand the situation and that’s not nice and felt really wrong in that moment. We cannot change that and it’s nothing to do with City.”