Their relaxed nature belies the pressure they must be feeling as the first team from the blue half of Manchester to appear in a Champions League final.
As John Stones attempts to preview Saturday’s game against Chelsea with CNN’s Darren Lewis, the City defender is photobombed by teammates Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Nathan Ake.
“I can’t do an interview here, boys,” he laughs.
From the outside, it may seem as though this Champions League final is the culmination of five years of hard work for Pep Guardiola in Manchester, but the players certainly feel differently.
“I would like to say it’s the beginning,” Stones says. “I think it’s obviously massive for us as a club, for us as players to make that next step and make history, something that’s never been done before, and I’ve said it every year, that we keep moving in the right direction, keep moving forwards and making the right steps forward, which is so important.
“I think as a team we’re evolving and I think the the icing on the cake is obviously winning the Champions League. But I think we’ve got to look back, as well, at ourselves … look how proud we should be.
“It’s something that we need to do and something that we all aspire to get to is a Champions League final. We’ve made it to the quarterfinals [in] my time twice since I’ve been here. The club’s history is twice that they’ve been in a semifinal, we’ve made that next step now and it would be a dream come true to lift that trophy and finish such an extraordinary season, in so many circumstances.”
‘I’m extremely proud of myself’
Stones has formed a formidable partnership in the heart of defense alongside summer signing Ruben Dias — City finished its victorious Premier League campaign with the league’s best defensive record — and is now one of the first names on Guardiola’s team sheet.
However, that hasn’t always been the case.
Stones struggled to find form for much of the 2019-20 season and his poor performances saw him dropped for both City and the England national team.
Dias’ arrival last summer looked set to spell the end for Stones’ stay in Manchester, with many suggesting Guardiola would prefer to play Aymeric Laporte alongside his new signing.
It’s a testament to Stones’ mental fortitude, then, that he was able to revive his career and he has since gone on to become a mainstay in City’s defense this season. The 26-year-old’s resurgence even earned him a recall to the England set up for March’s World Cup qualifiers, 16 months after winning his last cap.
“I think to prove to myself, no one else, prove to myself that I can,” Stones says of the inspiration behind his improved form. “That I deserve to be where I am.
“I’ve proved to myself that I know that I can be here and to my teammates, you know, I want to show them and contribute to them what I bring to the team and I had to come out of a situation that I didn’t want to be in, or no footballer wants to be in, and not playing or not contributing to the team or a club.
“I went away and looked at everything and fought hard to get back into the team and that comes with them playing well and playing consistently. I think, you know, I’m extremely proud of myself, but I couldn’t have done it without other people and my teammates, and I think that’s why we’ve been so successful over the years as well,” he added.
“But to look back now at the end of the season with two trophies won already, reaching a semifinal [FA Cup] and another final with the Champions League this weekend [is] something that I’m extremely proud of on a personal note.”
One of the greats
Guardiola has often been partially credited for Stones rediscovering his form, but the City manager has always insisted it was solely down to his player’s own desire to improve.
The Spaniard — known for his intense relationship with players — is widely considered one of the greatest managers of all time, but the one lingering criticism, whether unfair or otherwise, has been his inability to win the Champions League since leaving Barcelona in 2012.
Three seasons at Bayern Munich came and went — with Guardiola’s side coming unstuck in the semifinals each time — and in four previous seasons at City, he had never been able to progress past the quarterfinals.
The 50-year-old has sometimes been accused of overthinking his tactics when it comes to crunch time in the Champions League, often to the detriment of his own team, but Stones believes “100%” that Guardiola is one of the game’s coaching greats.
“I’ve had a lot of great managers,” he says. “One, sadly, that’s decided to step down in Roy Hodgson, Roberto Martinez, I was with David Moyes for a short spell at Everton as well, you know, the list kind of goes on, right back to my days at Barnsley.
“But [they’re] all great managers in their own way and I think this is the longest period I’ve spent with a single manager, so I kinda see how dedicated [he is], how his winning mentality comes on.
“I think the mentality of him is something that I can’t describe to you, his winning mentality, his desire to improve, his thought process in how to become better or try new things and implement them to us as players,” Stones adds.
“I think his history speaks for itself and when you’re working for a manager that has that and has been there and done things you have that respect straight away for him. You listen closely because you can’t buy experience that he’s been through and we want to thrive off it and learn from it as well, especially in big occasions like this weekend.”