Pep Guardiola is letting his Manchester City team do their talking on the pitch in an exciting, exquisite and expressive manner, hitherto unseen in English football.
Stylish, stunning and stupendous, it’s beginning to evoke memories of Guardiola’s Barcelona at their best – a brand of silky smooth, intricate and yet, paradoxically, simplistic play – one which is rapidly exhausting the dictionary of football superlatives.
Obviously City have yet to win silverware under the Catalan genius, but would any fan challenge the assertion that this is the best football ever produced by a City side?
Following the euphoria of a mesmerizing 4-2 Champions League win against Napoli, Pep himself was quick to quell any notion that he or his supremely talented players are getting ahead of themselves.
When questioned about City’s five point advantage at the top of the Premier League, he responded: “There are 84 points to play for. If we play like we have until May, we have a chance but who can assure me that will happen? Five points is nothing.”
By the same token, Pep’s approach was beautifully encapsulated in the run up to the clash in Naples when he was asked if City would play for the draw that would ensure qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League.
“Why play for a draw, when we can play for a win?”
Can you even begin to imagine a certain sour-faced ‘not so special one’ from Setubal saying that? No, me neither.
This was City’s best ever Italian Job, surpassing the fabled 2-2 draw with AC Milan back in November, 1978, as well as City’s only other competitive victory in Italy – the Great Escape – beating Roma 2-0 and squeezing through to the Champions League last 16 in December, 2014.
Claiming the mantle of the only English team to triumph in the intimidating surrounds of the Stadio San Paolo, could be a watershed moment in the development of Guardiola’s City.
It was a night of personal and collective milestones, the most obvious being Sergio Aguero’s smashing of City’s all-time goal-scoring record as goal number 178 went in on the Argentine’s 264th appearance.
As impressive as Aguero’s goal haul is, it’s the prolific strike rate and goals-to-games ratio, which sets it apart – not to mention the magnitude of the goal that eclipsed Eric Brook’s 78-year old record.
City’s critical third goal on the night, it knocked the fight out of the Serie A leaders who had given City their toughest task of the season thus far. The fact it was scored in a place where Diego Maradona – Sergio’s embittered former father-in-law – is still revered, only added spice to the occasion.
Dispatched with typical Aguero aplomb, the goal was the pivotal moment in a match that promised plenty of pressing, passing, pace, precision and possession from both sides. It delivered on all fronts.
City’s class, resilience and mental strength suggests those waiting for them to suddenly implode should consider a bulk order of straws at which to clutch in the coming weeks and months.
With 49 goals scored in 16 matches, 15 wins and a solitary draw (City beat Wolves on penalties so it goes down as a win in our book), table-toppers in both the Premier and Champions Leagues, there is still a tendency to cite City’s defence as the ‘weak’ spot.
Deprived of Captain Vincent Kompany and Shark Team leader, Benjamin Mendy, for most of the season, it’s a back line which has conceded only 10 times.
The assured presence of Ederson in goal cannot be overstated, nor can the imperious play of John Stones – increasingly hailed as The Barnsley Beckenbauer – who has matured immeasurably under Pep’s tutelage.
Whereas Stones has been winning all the plaudits as he brings the ball out from the back, has scored the same number of Champions League goals as Lionel Messi this season (3), and improved his decision-making no end, let’s not overlook the newly found passing and goal-getting prowess of a certain Argentine – General Otto.
Nicolas Otamendi is a player transformed by Pep.
No longer does he go to ground with alarming regularity, so often conceding free kicks, or left dumped on his backside as an opposing forward speeds off towards City goal.
He’s curbed his impetuosity and with it, his propensity to commit himself to risky tackles.
Never the fastest in a foot race, Otto has enhanced his positional awareness and concentration levels. He’s also started scoring in similar fashion to his days at Valencia, when he’d head and hit 8-10 goals-a-season.
Pep has helped re-invent Fabian Delph as a more than capable left-sided defender, whereas Kyle Walker is making Mauricio Pochettino’s claim that ‘his best days are behind him…’ sound ridiculous.
The assumption that a fit and in-form Kompany would further improve the defence gives rise to even more optimism, but City have shown they can progress without their talismanic on-field leader.
One defender with his best days ahead of him is Napoli’s excellent left back, Faouzi Ghoulam.
His anterior cruciate ligament injury and substitution on 30 minutes, undoubtedly helped City’s cause on Wednesday night, but it also dashed any chances of City acquiring him in January.
Algerian international Ghoulam was being touted as a possible cut-price addition to the City squad, with his Napoli contract running out at the end of this season. If he is to come to the Etihad, it’ll now surely be on a free in the summer.
One player going nowhere is Raheem Sterling, as City look to extend his contract.
Sterling managed to stay one goal ahead of Sergio for the season, as his late strike to ice the Napoli win took his tally to 10 – the same return as in all of 2016/17.
Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus also have eight goals a-piece, highlighting the ferocious fire-power City can unleash from all angles.
Another prominent Gunner – Alexis Sanchez – he who thought he’d be playing for City, not against them this season, will appear at the Etihad tomorrow, as Arsenal seek to continue where they left off in April.
Arsene Wenger’s side was the last to beat City in a competitive game, winning 2-1 after extra time, in a hugely controversial FA Cup semi final at Wembley.
City had a bona fide goal ruled out when the idiot linesman presumed a Sane cross had drifted out of play, before Aguero and Sterling combined to ‘score’.
David Silva was also targeted by the thuggish Arsenal defence and had to go off injured after just 20 minutes. Referee Craig Pawson afforded Merlin no protection and City suffered the consequences.
Having only been used as a 71st minute sub against Napoli, Captain Silva, should be fit and primed for revenge as City go for 15 consecutive wins and extend their unbeaten streak to 23 games.
Guardiola has called on the Etihad crowd to lift his players and keep them energized after the high octane Napoli encounter.
By contrast, Arsenal fielded an entire second string XI in a lacklustre 0-0 affair with Red Star Belgrade in the Thursday Night Knockabout Cup.
Pep readily concedes City will lose at some stage this season, but there’s no reason for it to happen on Sunday afternoon.
So far, Guardiola has rotated his squad to great effect, and you get the impression the only team that can stop City winning a third Premier League crown in six years are City themselves.
Complacency and/or injuries could be City’s undoing, but it’s hard to believe a perfectionist such as Pep would let the former creep into City’s mindset.
Speculation is rife that Guardiola is ready to extend his Etihad contract beyond 2019, a mouthwatering prospect for any City fan, and equally daunting for City’s rivals both in England and across the continent.
Pep’s assertion that a substantial gap still exists between City and European football’s elite – whether it be sincere or kidology – narrows with every passing day.
Even those who revel in decrying City have been forced to heap praise upon them in recent weeks, but Guardiola knows the hard yards still lie ahead as winter beckons and the fixtures come thick and fast.
The City boss won’t want to just sustain the standards set in the first quarter of the season, he’ll strive for continuous improvement, driven by an insatiable desire for more and more success.
It’s the only language he knows and one that could conceivably leave us all requiring an extended glossary to fully describe both his and Manchester City’s future achievements.
By David Walker
Dedicated to 15-year old Jordan Moseley, a City fan and starlet at the Accrington Stanley Academy, who died last month and was laid to rest yesterday. Our condolences and sympathies go to Jordan’s family and friends and all of those at Accrington Stanley Football Club.
READ BUT NEVER RED COMPETITION WINNER
Ever since City’s superb win at Chelsea we’ve been asking our readers when would Sergio Aguero hit the 178th goal of his City career and create a new scoring record?
We’ve had hundreds upon hundreds of predictions across social media including the RBNR website, Facebook and Twitter and we finally have a winner of the framed Manchester City Mini-Kit prize.
John Nightingale of the Isle of Wight Blues resisted the temptation to predict Sergio breaking the record against the likes of Burnley, Wolves and WBA, correctly guessing Napoli away in the Champions League. His name was first out of the hat, so congratulations to him and a big thank you to everyone who entered.
www.readbutneverred.com @ReadButNeverRed @djwskyblu