Off the Ball: Pep creating more lovable City
It's not easy as a neutral to get behind the megaclubs these days. Ever since the oil money sloshed into England and the common-or-garden multimillionaire owners became relative paupers, the game has seemed rigged.
It's why there was a genuine outpouring last season when Leicester overthrew the order and won the league, signifying, momentarily, that football wasn't dead as a contest. Will Manchester City ever thrill the neutral like Leicester managed?
Notwithstanding all that, it's equally hard, as a neutral, not to want to see Pep Guardiola reach some new exalting high in football. His first high was of such sustained brilliance over a couple of seasons that we thought maybe a new normal had been arrived at. This is how humanity is supposed to function after all: an outlier makes progress we never dreamed was possible, the rest of the world mutates it a bit and it becomes quotidian, almost bland.
It hasn't happened in football though. Real Madrid and Atletico are no mirror of Guardiola's Barca. Neither will this version of City be and they have no Messi, no Xavi, no peak-Iniesta to explode whenever things break down. Something else will have to emerge and we're seeing some glimpses of it. His three centre-backs were shaky against Everton and Gael Clichy clearly has never watched any of Romelu Lukaku's goals; otherwise he'd have tried to angle him away from his left foot.
With the criticism of that and the missed penalties there was naturally less time to analyse why Guardiola is going to three at the back. The theory seems to be, to get more of his better attacking players on the pitch and to ensure that the defenders have a role to play in dictating where the game is played, that three is better than four.
It's hardly revolutionary but with the right personnel it'll make sure that a Guardiola team has more numbers than their opposition in key areas. Last time that happened we watched the best football ever played for a couple of years.
Tonight we'll see a more cynical, and some say, clinical Barca against their creator. It's early in Pep's City reign but progress tonight will win a lot of neutrals' hearts.