Aguero gives City a pep but Guardiola is still on defence
Questions over quality of back line at the Etihad leave confrontational Sky Blues boss on edge
Sergio Agüero was able to bask in the rare glow of unstinting praise after helping take Manchester City's goal haul to 13 in three rounds of the FA Cup and, though the opposition was only Championship-level and it is always in a manager's interests to emphasise the positives rather than dwell on the negatives, Pep Guardiola seemed to be winning another battle.
Battle does seem an appropriate word for the frequently beleaguered manager's first season in England, yet it must be acknowledged Guardiola has got more right than wrong, Agüero being a case in point. The Argentinian could easily have spent the rest of the season sulking after Guardiola could barely conceal his enthusiasm for what Gabriel Jesus brought to the side in his place and the manager was even frank enough to accept that City's leading scorer might want to look for another club at the end of the season.
Agüero still might, though now he is back in favour as a result of Jesus's metatarsal fracture he seems determined to prove a point and show that he can work for the team in addition to providing a reliable finish. It is possible he now sees himself in the shop window, as opposed to a player with a long-term City future, though in either case he is prepared to be professional about it and, if anything, appears to have gained in sharpness.
Yet even as Guardiola was speaking about Agüero in glowing terms the player was doing some talking of his own in another part of the stadium, making the point that, though City keep saying they are relaxed about his future, they have not actually mentioned the subject to him. Perhaps that was why Guardiola's gush tap was turned off again a couple of days later when those present at the manager's weekly press conference found Agüero was suddenly a no-go area. "He is so happy, I am so happy, we are all happy," was all Guardiola would say. "I have had this question 10 times, so no more please."
Even David Moyes had more to say on the matter than that. The Sunderland manager's view that Guardiola has done well to bring the best out of his star players may be news to Agüero, though Moyes does know a few things about the difficulties of dealing with big names. With four goals in his last two outings Agüero is showing the sort of reaction any manager would want and David Moyes for one is apprehensive about having to deal with him on Sunday afternoon at the Stadium of Light.
Guardiola's confrontational style brought about an improvement in Yaya Touré, too. The midfielder's rehabilitation has been one of the quiet successes of the season, and quiet is also the word for the troublesome agent firmly put in his place by Guardiola's handling of a tricky situation.
Clearly not everything at the Etihad is running as smoothly as it might; John Stones still does not look like the most expensive English defender in history, Nicolás Otamendi at times does not look like a defender at all, and Guardiola's staunch backing of Claudio Bravo rang hollow on a night when Twitter was buzzing with the suggestion City were actually playing with a hologram in goal.
Yet as the business end of the season comes into view City are not far from where they would want to be. Only Chelsea's extraordinary consistency appears to have put the title out of reach and, as Guardiola has admitted, any side that can put a 13-match winning sequence deserves to be top of the table.
In a fortnight's time City could be in the last eight of the Champions League and the last four of the FA Cup. Before the knockouts resume they face relegation-threatened Sunderland and an apparently distracted Stoke, then the real fun starts with consecutive games against Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea either side of the international break.
With the postponed Manchester derby also still to be slotted in somewhere the defining period of City's season has probably not yet arrived. City's main task, if Chelsea cannot be caught, is staying in the top four and progressing in Europe.
While the latter seems likely after their 5-3 first-leg result against Monaco, that game was a microcosm of the difficulties City face. They are good at scoring goals, even without Jesus the movement of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané can causes problems for most opponents, not to mention the creative instincts of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.
Yet a peek at the Monaco game or a glance at the Premier League table tell a familiar story. City conceded three goals at home in their last European outing and in most cases that would not yield a win. Similarly on the domestic front, though the top six look closely bunched, there are actually two groups of teams in contention. There are the ones with tight defences - Chelsea, Tottenham and United - and the ones who have been conceding more than a goal a game. Liverpool are the worst offenders in that regard, with City and Arsenal next, so Guardiola's side are keeping company with the two members of the top six whose fans are most dissatisfied about their season.
The good news for City is that unlike Arsenal and Liverpool they are still improving, though no matter how happy Guardiola claims everyone is they will not contest the very biggest prizes without sorting out their defensive aberrations.
When Guardiola says he is "so happy" with his back line he probably means he is sick of hearing about it. How else can he respond now the transfer window is shut and he will not even acknowledge a mistake over Joe Hart?
Sunday Indo Sport