LONDON: Even Pep Guardiola admitted last season that Manchester City needed to be crowned European champions to gain acceptance among football’s royalty.
Real Madrid have 13 European Cup or Champions League titles to their name, AC Milan seven and both Liverpool and Bayern Munich have six.
Despite City’s remarkable success in England over the past decade, this prize is the “big gap to fill” says midfielder Bernardo Silva, 27, as they prepare for a titanic semifinal encounter with Real Madrid.
He labels the Spanish side the “kings of the Champions League,” but feels City are now ready to sit on the throne, especially after their disappointing 1-0 loss in last season’s showpiece to Chelsea.
In their first final in the competition, Guardiola’s team were strangely below par — and defeat only fueled their motivation to succeed.
“You learn with the mistakes, you learn with the experiences and it was still a very good experience for us in the Champions League last season,” said Silva.
“Unfortunately the final did not go the way we expected. But we will try to get there again this season — and this time win it.
“We saw the games Real played against PSG and Chelsea, so if they are able to beat both of those teams it means they are one of the best teams in the world and we are going to have to fight to beat them.
“But there is no fear. We beat them two seasons ago in the last 16 and we will try to beat them again, knowing they are the kings of the Champions League as they say. But we want to be kings and we believe in our team.”
That belief has increased further following the return of Ruben Dias after a seven-week absence with injury, and Bernardo has no doubt City’s defense can handle the threat of the in-form Karim Benzema.
The French forward, 34, will make his 600th appearance for Los Blancos in Tuesday’s first leg at Etihad Stadium, and seek a 40th goal of an outstanding campaign that saw him score hattricks to help knock out Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea in the previous two rounds.
“Karim has been having a great season and he’s a great player,” said Silva, who joined City from Monaco in 2017 for £43.5 million ($55.4 million).”
“But when you play Real, PSG, Chelsea, Liverpool, Atletico Madrid, you play against some of the best players in the world. We are used to it, used to playing against the best, and I think our defenders will do the job.
“We saw the impact Ruben had last season, how important he is for us. Unfortunately he was injured these last seven weeks, but we are so happy to have him back with us.
“His leadership, the concentration, the ambition, the focus and overall, in my opinion, he’s one of the best defenders in the world, if not the best.”
Having compatriots Dias and Joao Cancelo at City has helped Silva, who almost left the club last summer as the Covid-19 pandemic took its toll and he wanted to be closer to his family in Portugal.
He admitted to being “lonely” and told Arab News: “Look, I had a conversation with the club because I made a decision for my life.
“We will see what happens in the future, but I am very happy right now. I have always said until the last day I’m here, whatever happens, I will do my best for this club, for these fans. I love it, I love the fans, I love the club.
“They have been fantastic since day one for me so I will try to do my best for them as long as I stay here,” he said. “And I look around the world and I don’t see a better project than Manchester City. It’s probably the best project that you see in football teams.”
“So, in terms of winning titles, in terms of the ambition this club has got for the future, it’s probably the best in the world.”
Silva’s impressive displays have reflected his current mood and he has become integral to Guardiola’s team in their pursuit of more honors.
But he said: “Nothing changed for me on the pitch. I’ve tried to do my best since I arrived here, but sometimes you do a little bit better than other times.
“This season, not only me, but the whole team has been very good. Last season we were fantastic as well. I think in these past five years the only season where we didn’t play as well was in my third season.
“Apart from that we have been quite unbelievable and, although it was disappointing not to reach our goal in the FA Cup and Carabao Cup, we are still fighting this season for the Premier League and the Champions League, the most important trophies.
“I’ve never experienced anything like what we have with this team, definitely not.
“I’ve won 10 trophies with Man City since I came almost five years ago. That means even after a season where you win a lot, you are still hungry for more and you want to win again.
“We are still hungry and we want to beat Liverpool to the Premier League, we want to try to reach the final of the Champions League and go after our dream of winning it.
“I like this pressure. Look, it’s better to be here than to be fighting against relegation or for fourth place or the Europa Conference League. We are fighting for titles and that means we are a very good team.”
Bernardo certainly typifies that fighting spirit in his princely performances on the pitch.
Combining tenacity with a sublime touch, he relishes a challenge, and especially the one currently posed by Liverpool.
The Reds face Villarreal in the other last-four tie on Wednesday and, having won the Carabao Cup, reached the FA Cup final and standing just one point behind leaders City in the Premier League with five games left, Jurgen Klopp’s men are targeting four trophies in one season.
Bernardo added: “We have had this fight with them for the past five seasons, but we still have a big gap to fill, and that is the Champions League.
“Liverpool are an amazing team and this season will be in the fight again, and we will try to beat them,” he added. “When you play against the best teams you fight and you have to be good. If they are good, you have to be better than them.”
“We are still top of the league, just one point ahead and we cannot slip. We are going to be there, we are going to fight in all of the games to win them.”
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