After passing their biggest test yet against Napoli, are Manchester City ready to win the Champions League?
It seemed like typically diplomatic hyperbole from Maurizio Sarri on the eve of the game but, after it, it looked much more like it might be highly accurate. The Napoli manager had said that Manchester City are “the best team in Europe”, and Pep Guardiola’s side duly went and took another step in proving it by gradually stripping the Serie A leaders for parts in a hugely impressive 4-2 win at the Stadio San Paolo.
Whether they can now go the whole way remains to be seen, and their players were post-game resolutely sticking to the message that they just have to keep trying to play the same way, but they should certainly have nothing to fear.
There were so many elements of their victory in Naples that showed they are now performing on an elevated level.
There was first of all the fact Napoli put it up to them like no other side so far this season, giving them problems they just hadn’t encountered on this 14-game winning run, right down to the fact City went behind in a game for the first time since 26 August.
The big question then was how Guardiola’s side would respond to finally having their rhythm disrupted. A similar set-back last season, after all, brought the slump that saw them ultimately win nothing.
“We spoke about it,” Guardiola said. “In that level, we cannot control 90 minutes. The point is how we react, and we did it twice, after 1-0 and 2-2. That’s why I’m so pleased. When everything is going well, it’s easy. Even you and I can play. The point is how you react in bad moments and we did it really well.”
They also did it without Gabriel Jesus – something that in the end barely needed to be mentioned – did it without necessarily controlling the ball and flow of the game in the way they’re used to, and instead did it with some devastating counter-attacks and set-pieces. In other words, they now have multiple weapons, just as they now have multiple selection options and is reflected in how they are so capable of attacking opposition sides from all angles.
There isn’t a side in Europe with that level of purring unpredictability right now.
And that is the other side to this big question.
We may just be in a transitional period in the Champions League, that could further facilitate a City triumph.
Most pointedly, the three “super super-clubs” of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona all look on a collectively lower level than at any point over the last eight years, and certainly not like they are going to command the semi-final places in the way they have done over that period. A stuttering Bayern have already had to sack Carlo Ancelotti and bring in stand-in Jupp Heynckes.
Real seem to have been “defeated by victory”, as the phrase goes, and just so much slacker than the team that won the last two Champions Leagues. Barca are meanwhile re-adjusting after their most rancorous summer in years, and it so often feels like it is only Leo Messi’s brilliance that sustains a side whose manager Ernesto Valverde is working to give some defensive stability to them in the meantime.
Juventus are meanwhile enduring their sloppiest start to a season in years, while there are some huge names set to fall out of the competition like Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid. The granite wall of a roadblock Diego Simeone’s team represent would considerably clear the way in the knock-out stages.
There’s also the fact that none of these teams are performing with anywhere near the cohesion of City - not even Paris Saint-Germain.
The grandstanding French side currently look like City’s biggest opponents and currently just have bigger stars. As utterly brilliant as Guardiola’s attack has been and as much as so many of them are over-performing to overwhelming levels, none of them are yet on Neymar’s level – not even the exceptional Kevin de Bruyne – and it means PSG are still the only side beyond Barca or Real Madrid with that kind of truly win-it-on-his-own wondrous talent like Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
There is still a sense that PSG are individuals interchanging rather than a truly systemised collective, though, and you would also fancy Guardiola to out-coach Unai Emery over two legs.
The very distinctive dynamic of the knock-out stages of course raises another caveat.
You can still win a Champions League without winning many games. Poor form that can feel so pertinent now, and cost you a domestic title, can be rendered utterly irrelevant by the time the Champions League knock-outs start up.
So many sides have proven this, not least the current champions Real in the years before they at last added a Spanish title to their Champions Leagues.
As Guardiola saw himself with Barcelona in 2009-10, meanwhile, a season’s fine work can go up in smoke – or, in this case, volcano smoke – because of one bad night. That’s knock-out football, but that still doesn’t change a fundamental football truth.
You give yourself a much better chance of winning if you do all the fundamentals right throughout the season, if you have the right foundation.
City undeniably have that. They just need to keep proving it can build to something much greater.
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