MANCHESTER, England — Bristol City, an unheralded club in England’s second tier, has beaten four Premier League opponents — including Manchester United — to reach the semifinals of the League Cup.
Now the hard work begins.
Next up on Tuesday is Premier League leader Manchester City, which hasn’t lost any of its 26 games in domestic competition and, according to Bristol City manager Lee Johnson, will “etch itself in history as one of the greatest teams to have ever graced the pitches in England.”
That the competition’s semifinals are played over two legs makes Bristol City’s task of causing a major upset even harder, but there is scope for encouragement.
Man City has failed to score just once at home all season and that was against another second-tier team in Wolverhampton Wanderers, who took Pep Guardiola’s side to penalties following a 0-0 draw after extra time.
Squad rotation could be in Guardiola’s thoughts amid Man City’s busy run of fixtures across three competitions — the league, the FA Cup, and the League Cup — but he could choose to go hard in the first leg and try to have the semifinal all but secured before heading to Bristol for the return match on Jan. 23.
“We don’t want to wait for the second leg,” Man City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan said. “We want to try to have the perfect result in the first one.”
Man City fielded a strong team for a 4-1 win against Burnley in the FA Cup third round on Saturday and it is never easy to second-guess Guardiola’s lineups.
With Liverpool up next in the Premier League, where City holds a 15-point lead, Guardiola may opt to give many of his reserves a run-out.
The problem for Bristol City: Guardiola’s reserves are mostly established internationals.
“They’re human,” Johnson said, before warning, “even if they have world-class players in every position and world-class players behind that.
“The concentration levels it will take to ensure we don’t get infiltrated in our back line will be huge.”
Johnson spent $600 on a bottle of wine to share with United manager Jose Mourinho after the final whistle in the quarterfinal that Bristol City won 2-1. In the end, a chastened Mourinho and United “shot off” — according to Johnson — leaving Johnson to share the bottle with his goalkeeping coach.
This time, Johnson wants to steer clear of “wine talk” and would just like to talk to Guardiola about “tactics and his career” after the game.
Bristol City eliminated Watford, Stoke, Crystal Palace before knocking out United, scoring some spectacular goals along the way. Since that United game, the team has won just one of its five matches — and so far in 2018, it has lost 5-0 at Aston Villa in the league and 3-0 at Watford in the FA Cup.
Bristol City has never won a major trophy in English soccer, coming closest in 1909 when it lost to Man United in the FA Cup final. It was last in the top flight in 1980.
“The challenge is to make sure we play our game,” Johnson said. “We definitely did that against Manchester United in the last round, so that’s a box ticked. Now we have to do it against a side that is used to having up to 85 percent possession in games.”
Man City’s bid to win a quadruple of titles is still on track, with the team also through to the knockout stage of the Champions League.
In the other semifinal, Arsenal takes on Chelsea on Wednesday, with the first leg at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80