It must be comforting for Manchester City that even now, even after winning the lot, they find themselves in uncharted waters in a capital famous for its siren.
Copenhagen can’t really decide whether 63 days of rest is a good or bad thing ahead of their biggest Champions League tie in more than a decade. While Jacob Neestrup’s team has endured a long winter break in Denmark, with their feet in the snow, his counterpart Pep Guardiola and his team negotiated a dozen games, including a trip to Saudi Arabia before Christmas .
Neestrup argued that this is a disadvantage. Some of his players think otherwise and it will be interesting to see how they react after a friendly tournament in Portugal against other Scandinavian teams in which they played three times in five days last week.
If City don’t know what awaits them in the Danish capital, they will quickly find out when the first leg of their round of 16 tie begins in feverish Parken tonight. Ten-man Manchester United collapsed here in November when Roony Bardghji’s (named after Wayne) late goal was the result of Erik ten Hag’s team being overwhelmed by the crowd. The national stadium, a compact box with offices in one corner, comes to life under the lights and staff were busy tying the tifo in the stands last night.
“Imagine this stadium after two months without playing: everyone is desperate to see football,” Guardiola said.
Copenhagen’s victory over Galatasaray to qualify for the Champions League round of 16 is the club’s most recent competitive match.
Jacob Neestrup’s team has an impressive record playing at home in European competitions
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‘I have great respect for them. This morning I told the players that they have to prepare mentally. The game plan will be the same as always, but they have to be prepared to suffer mentally. Tomorrow will be a close game. I’m sorry and normally my gut doesn’t lie to me.’
The Danish champions have only lost three times at home in this competition: to Chelsea in the 2011 qualifiers, Real Madrid in 2013 and Bayern Munich earlier in this year’s group. They took a point off Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2010 and City also during last season’s group stage.
“Parken is something special internationally and now we have a history,” said Neestrup, the 35-year-old coach. ‘Parken is up there. He can move us forward. We have faced big powers before and we believe in ourselves and Parken. I don’t really care how good City are. The Mini-Copenhagen have given great results.”
That leads us to attitude, body language. The City stars were reprimanded by their manager during half-time of Saturday’s match against Everton. With his team scoreless at the time, Guardiola saw the kind of frustration from some that he will not tolerate. Erling Haaland rescued them by scoring two goals, although he also failed to escape criticism. Guardiola wanted him to maintain a more positive attitude, even when the goals were not flowing.
Fortunately for Haaland, they flow: now there are 73 in sky blue. Seventeen of them are in this competition. The local media in this part of the world peppered Guardiola with an inquisition about the phenomenon.
“You can see his numbers at his age,” Guardiola said. ‘In the Champions League not even Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo had these numbers at their age. The numbers are incredible. Score goals everywhere.
“In the first half on Saturday maybe we didn’t have special players, like Kevin De Bruyne, for example, who could find him. At that moment, as he is very young, he has to be positive. He will come. We never put pressure on him: ‘You have to mark us a goal.’ No. Get involved in what we have to do and the rest will come naturally.
Erling Haaland scored his first goals since returning from injury in City’s win over Everton
The Norwegian scored twice at the Etihad to soften what had been a rather frustrating afternoon for the hosts.
“When he scored, he reacted but he doesn’t need to score because he helps us in many things. Not just goals. He is defined by goals but it’s not just that. In many games it’s how he applauds, encourages his teammates and the first intense pressure. This is what We need Erling. He’s a great competitor who wants to score goals. Okay, I know, we know, so relax.
“If we don’t score today or if he doesn’t score in 10 minutes, that’s fine, but in the process he has to try to say ‘let’s go’, because the team always wins when it overcomes the bad moments.”
Guardiola has sent some messages in recent weeks and the body language is just the latest as City squint ahead of the long run-up to the year. And it doesn’t just focus on Haaland. They all did it a few days ago. You suspect that this was thinking about the Copenhagen duel.
“There will be moments when we will suffer,” Guardiola said. ‘In these moments will we be sad and depressed or will we react? We have to understand that the rival deserves to have good moments, not just us because we are champions. The way you handle those moments is what defines a great team. Body language is everything in life.’