José Mourinho is of the opinion that the five teams above Manchester United in the table are going to have it easier than his own for the rest of the season now that every single one is out of Europe. He might have a point yet, in the short term at least, Manchester City can still go two ways.

Pep Guardiola’s side would not be the first English club to suffer a hangover on the domestic front on the back of a major disappointment in Europe and few English clubs have invested as much as Manchester City in becoming established in the Champions League. That is ultimately why Guardiola is here and stumbling two rounds short of last season’s semi-final mark is not the sort of progress City’s owners were looking for. There is no reason why the club cannot learn lessons, make changes and come back stronger for the experience next season, as Guardiola says they will, though for the moment the focus is on how well the manager and his players handle this unexpected setback.

The stakes could not be much higher at the Etihad on Sunday afternoon, for Liverpool would go above City with victory, enhancing their own hopes of a top-four finish while ratcheting up any anxiety among the home side over whether another target is about to be missed.

City will have to make sure any lingering memories of losing to Monaco are out of their system, for they will need all their confidence and concentration to deal with Jürgen Klopp’s side. Liverpool have just had a week’s rest while City were having their self-belief shredded in the south of France.

Liverpool beat City quite comfortably at Anfield on New Year’s Eve and came close to running riot last season at the Etihad, when a freshly arrived Klopp was able to supervise a 4-1 victory. Liverpool appear to have City’s number, in other words, and Klopp is one of the few coaches around with a positive record in head-to-heads against Guardiola.

After having their European pretensions exposed so thoroughly on Wednesday City will need to be at their best to make sure a bad week does not become worse. “The players are sad,” Guardiola says. “Like me they would have preferred to play against Liverpool and still be in the Champions League, flying after qualifying for the quarter-finals. But we aren’t and we have to handle that. Football is like this. Sport is like this.

“If anyone thinks I have to win all the time, they are wrong because other teams are good, other managers are clever. You are bound to lose sometimes and, when you do, you have to recover as soon as possible. Part of my job is to lift the players’ heads and keep a focus on what we can still achieve.”

In the FA Cup semi-finals along with three other top-five clubs (Liverpool are the notable absentees) and on course at the moment for Champions League qualification, City are not in that tight a spot. Just about anyone in the league bar Chelsea would swap places with them, yet this is a club that set out to achieve the loftiest ambitions and this is the manager they chose because he seemed to represent the last word in sophistication and progress.

If City are not progressing – and even before Monaco this season has been something of a switchback ride – there must be a problem. And if there is a problem, Guardiola is forever willing to be held answerable.

“I am the manager and I am responsible for absolutely everything that happens,” Guardiola says. “In Monaco I tried to convince the players to play in the first half in a different way and I was not able. So that is my fault. I am not going to say: ‘Why did you not follow my instructions?’ – I am responsible. Every manager in the world can sometimes lose. Sometimes it is not easy to accept but it is part of my job.

“I know I am here with big expectations because I won a lot in Barcelona and Bayern Munich but, if the expectations were less, maybe I wouldn’t win anyway. I never said I was going to win a title or a double or a treble. I never said that. This is my first season and all I ever promised was a lot of work. Few guys can beat me at that. I work hard and I am proud of that. But I never promise titles, never in my life. Not even when I went to Bayern Munich and they had just won the treble with Jupp Heynckes.”

This seems reasonable. Guardiola did win the Bundesliga with Bayern but he was absolutely expected to. Taking on his present job was completely different. City reacquainted themselves with the title twice before his arrival but at no point has the Etihad empire even come close to reaching the level of power and dominance exerted by Bayern over German football.

If Guardiola was appointed to bridge that gap and set City on the path to unrivalled greatness, then fair enough, though few expected results to be instant. Not when defensive shortcomings were exposed by Leicester as well as Liverpool last season. Not with Raheem Sterling and John Stones still waiting to be pronounced the finished article, despite the pair costing £100m.

Guardiola’s reputation may have been formidable around Europe a year or so ago but City were just as famous in England for being City. Rather than imagining Guardiola would walk in and effect an immediate transformation, most people realised he would need time. More pundits tipped United for the title than City, mainly because there was a suspicion that Guardiola’s first season might be derailed by Europe.

Guardiola is good but he might have met his match in City, where an exceptional (his word) manager keeps being tripped up by fairly ordinary problems. “Sometimes managers don’t win titles in a season,” he says. “That is the normal situation all around the world. The exception is my career. I am sorry but that is exceptional.”

This is fighting talk, perhaps for the ears of the owners, but this is the crux of the season now and Guardiola needs to make an adjustment quickly. Contrary to what Arsenal supporters keep telling Arsène Wenger, in this most competitive of seasons at the top of the table, third or fourth place is not to be sniffed at. Put another way, what will happen should City miss the cut might just be exceptional.