By Richard Buxton
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – No team this season has been able to rival this current Manchester City team but they almost, finally, met their match in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Napoli in UEFA Champions League action.
Within barely a quarter of an hour played at the Etihad Stadium, Napoli appeared a far cry from the side that had arrived on the back of winning all but one of their opening 11 games in all competitions and also run up an eight-game winning streak in Serie A.
Their closest equivalence, however, threatened to derail a 100 per cent record and confirmed that Pep Guardiola’s side still have work to do before their status as the Premier League’s champions-elect is translated to their Champions League campaign also.
Before conceding two careless penalties, one of them saved, this game – like qualification from Group F itself – had long been City’s to lose. Even with the visitors’ undue level of ascendancy after the break, this was already a different story to their previous meeting.
Six years ago, City’s fêted return to the continental elite failed to launch; they crashed out in third place and into a similarly unsuccessful Europa League knock-out campaign. Threats of a repeat against manager Maurizio Sarri’s high flyers were credible but largely unfounded.
Dubbed “Mr 33” for his ability to combat a myriad of set pieces, Sarri’s combined career of banking and operating largely in Italy’s footballing backwaters for a quarter of a century failed to prepare him for wave of unstoppable City attacks in a largely runaway first half.
Should Guardiola add more titles to an already impressive honour roll, helping Raheem Sterling realise his true potential must still rank among his greatest accomplishments.
In the late Johan Cruyff, Guardiola possessed the greatest possible mentor and those qualities have clearly transferred his tutelage of the much-maligned Sterling, who recorded his eighth goal of the season in this narrow victory.
Like Cruyff with his own fledgling career, Guardiola invested heavily in Sterling. It came at a time when negativity was a regular theme following his £49 million move to the Etihad. Since a difficult Euro 2016 campaign for the winger, he has been on-hand throughout.
“Zero chance” was how the City manager’s assertion of Arsenal’s attempts to take the prodigious forward a makeweight in his side’s failed attempt to land Alexis Sanchez last summer. That percentile will likely be reduced again with a continued purple patch.
That faith was further repaid with a right-footed opener after Kyle Walker had been denied by Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina, on the back of good build-up play between Leroy Sane and David Silva.
Only a goal-line clearance from Kalidou Koulibaly prevented Sterling from adding an assist as he teed up Gabriel Jesus just before the 30-minute mark in a first half where the Brazilian striker had already shared both the score sheet and hit rate with his teammate.
As he has so often proved, Kevin De Bruyne was the master architect for Jesus to double City’s advantage with an inch-perfect pass to the far post that the Brazilian stroked home for his eighth goal in 11 outings for City – exactly the same figures accrued by Sterling.
De Bruyne should have further placed the game out of Napoli’s reach when a first-time shot on the edge of the penalty area cannoned back off the underside of Reina’s crossbar. It proved the turning point as Sarri’s side imposed his signature style of direct and fast-paced play in a further affront to Aurelio De Laurentiis.
The Napoli president had urged his manager to rest several key players in anticipation of Saturday’s top-of-the-table Serie A clash with Inter Milan. Sarri only relented briefly in resting Allan and Jorginho, with his decision to restore Amadou Diawara in place of the former paying dividends from the penalty spot after Fernandinho tripped Faouzi Ghoulam.
“Obviously, we have to divide the match into two parts – the first 25 minutes and the rest,” Sarri said.
“We had to play a very good team that caused us a lot of difficulties. It’s a very good team because they are, technically, a quality team and they are also playing very well, they are in very good shape.
“The first 30 minute were difficult because they were very good but we made it easier for them. We didn’t press them enough. They have some very good players when they have got possession of the ball so they managed to find a way around us.
“If you make a mistake against them, you are immediately in trouble. But we also have to say we had some difficulties that is causing difficulties against every team at the moment.
“We managed to fight back. Not many teams are able to come back in the way we did and cause some difficulties to Man City. We regret that we missed the first penalty but we know we are on the right way to be competitive in Europe.”
Guardiola maintains that winning will always triumph over entertainment value, as it did on this occasion, but his side have largely managed to marry the two values. It only came under genuine scrutiny midway through what was the first of six games during the space of the next 19 days.
He remains understandably cautious about that run-in; Saturday’s visit of an in-form Burnley will pose one of the sterner tests City are likely to face, bookended by a corresponding fixture with Napoli and a home clash with Arsenal on November 5.
“You cannot beat a team as good as Napoli unless you put in really good performance. I really mean that, you have to be so good to beat this Napoli team,” Guardiola admitted.
“This is one of the proudest victories of my career, I am so, so proud of my players tonight. We knew it was going to be so, so tough.
“When you win 4-0, you are less nervous than when you win 2-1 but I expected that. Napoli is an exceptional team.
“We made a good first half, 30-35 minutes. We scored the two goals. We could have made the third or fourth. After that we were a bit tired, we couldn’t finish our counter-attacks and we arrive late for our pressing.”
There are still few teams that will fancy their chances against a side which attacks with the tempo that Guardiola’s charges still boast. Even his all-conquering Barca side of the late 2000s would struggle to rival the swashbuckling qualities currently on show at the Etihad.
Infallibility remains a work in progress, even for one of the game’s master tacticians.
Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Manchester’s Etihad Stadium.