Guardiola relying on FA Cup to salvage first season at City

By STEVE DOUGLAS

AP Sports Writer

MANCHESTER, England (AP) The Champions League dream was over in mid-March.

Realistic ambitions of capturing the English Premier League title were extinguished way before then.

Pep Guardiola's last hope of winning silverware in his first season at Manchester City rests with the FA Cup.

It's hardly how Manchester City's hierarchy envisaged things going when they hired the most coveted manager in world soccer to much fanfare last year.

"They will not be happy," Guardiola said on Friday of City's owners from Abu Dhabi. "The expectation of the club is as high as possible, winning titles. And we are not able. We are not happy, I can completely understand."

The man himself is fairly phlegmatic about it all heading into an FA Cup semifinal against Arsenal at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Guardiola arrived at City having won at least one trophy each season in four spectacular years at Barcelona and three years at Bayern Munich. Of course, he won much more than that: Two Champions Leagues, six domestic leagues, and four domestic cups.

But he knew it would be much more challenging at City, at a club without such a history of winning trophies, and in a country where competition for titles is so strong.

He has been proved right.

City was eliminated by Monaco in the last 16 of the Champions League, for Guardiola's earliest ever exit from the competition, and is only fourth in the Premier League amid a real struggle just to qualify for next season's Champions League. With six games left, only Chelsea or Tottenham can win the title.

So how crucial to Guardiola is winning the FA Cup? He took two views on Friday.

"All clubs in the world want to win titles. It's important," Guardiola said. "But I think winning or not winning isn't going to change too many things about the perspective of our future, what we are going to do."

Minutes later, Guardiola slightly changed tack, saying that lifting a trophy would "put in the hearts and heads of my players how good they are."

"I said many times with them, but they still don't believe how good they are. Winning titles helps you a lot. Winning helps you win more because you realize you have that experience. When you win a title, a final, there's a lot of stress, a lot of pressure. When you handle that, the next time will be easier.

"That's why it's important for the future of the club."

Going simply on results, City is likely to end the season having regressed under Guardiola. Last season, under Manuel Pellegrini, the team reached the semifinals of the Champions League, won the English League Cup, and achieved a top-four finish in the Premier League.

Yet, performances on the whole have improved in the Guardiola era, only for some breathtaking passages of football to be undone by poor finishing or poor defending.

Guardiola is happy with the progress City is making, whether or not the team wins the FA Cup.

"My season was good," he said. "I'm happy here. I was so happy all the season, with its up and downs. Of course, in terms of that, to achieve a final, it doesn't matter which one."

Gabriel Jesus has returned to training after two months out with a broken foot and will travel with the squad to London. Guardiola said the striker could be involved in the final, perhaps even from the start.

The Brazil international made a stunning start to life at City, scoring three goals in his first two league games before getting injured on Feb. 13 against Bournemouth.

In Gabriel Jesus' absence, Sergio Aguero has scored 11 goals in 11 games so Guardiola has an embarrassment of riches in the striker department.

If this weekend comes too soon for Gabriel Jesus, Guardiola's team selection for Thursday's Manchester derby against United in the Premier League will be fascinating.

Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Updated April 21, 2017

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