City boys need to beware

Author: Jonathan WilsonSat, 2017-11-04 03:00ID: 1509743270329213400LONDON: Manchester City have only dropped two points all season. They’re breaking goal-scoring records in the Premier League and on Wednesday they went to the home of the Serie A leaders Napoli, and beat them 4-2. They had already given them a chasing for half an hour at the Etihad, ending up winning 2-1. With all the other superclubs working through specific issues, there’s a good case to be made that City are, at this precise moment, the best side in the world.Some of their football this season has been extraordinary. Of course it is predicated on spending, but then financial issues lie dismayingly behind most success in football these days. To sneer, as the former City midfielder Joey Barton did, that Pep Guardiola would not be playing the sort of football he does if he were manager of Burnley is facile. Of course he wouldn’t. Nobody would expect him to. How could he? But there are plenty of managers with similar or greater resources who have not produced sides that play quite so beguilingly.What’s more, Guardiola has clearly improved players. Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne are playing the best football of their careers. John Stones is beginning to look like the cultured defender everybody hoped he might become when he first emerged at Barnsley. Fabian Delph, reinvented as a left-back, is enjoying a new lease of life. It’s one thing to buy the best players, chuck them on the pitch and see what takes shape, but quite another to do what Guardiola has done, which is to buy high-grade raw material and craft it into an exquisite mechanism.It’s not even as though the fixture list has been particularly easy. City have played away at Chelsea, and beaten them. They played Liverpool when they were on a high after demolishing Arsenal, and hammered them 5-0. They played a Watford side that has beaten Arsenal, drawn with Liverpool and made life difficult for Chelsea, and beat them 6-0.And yet a doubt lingers. It’s not necessarily a doubt about City in the league. At the moment they look like they can roll over just about anybody and, if they were to drop points against, say, Manchester United or Tottenham, they would probably still be dominant enough against the rest to win the title with relative comfort. There is, of course, the memory of last season, when City started superbly and then collapsed, but their squad is stronger this time around, and Guardiola (pictured) more attuned to the Premier League.The worry is more about the knockout stage of the Champions League where, as Guardiola has found repeatedly through his career — against Inter Milan and Chelsea when he was at Barcelona and against Atletico Madrid when he was at Bayern — one silly goal conceded can lead to elimination even in a game in which you’re otherwise in control. And City have this season begun to concede silly goals. Against Stoke, they went 3-0 up, let in two soft goals, and then accelerated away to win 7-2. The win over West Brom last week was one of the most one-sided 3-2s imaginable. And then there was the game against Napoli at the Etihad. City were mesmerisingly brilliant in the first half hour: Not only did they go 2-0 up but De Bruyne hit the bar and Gabriel Jesus had a shot cleared off the line. Then, slowly, the pendulum shifted and Kyle Walker gave away a needless penalty. That was missed, but it encouraged Napoli and the second-half was end to end. City weren’t quite clinging on by the end, but equally they could easily have drawn a game in which they should have been out of sight with an hour to play.Whether that is an issue of carelessness or whether it is inherent in Guardiola’s approach is hard to say. Alex Ferguson, after a series of frustrating European exits (and one glorious success), concluded that it was better to have five chances in a game and deny your opponents any than to have 20 and allow the opposition five because in the former case there was no chance of defeat. The policy brought him his second Champions League. Guardiola is unlikely ever to go through a similar conversion and that means however well his side plays, the opposition will always have a chance.
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