Tuesday 20 March 2018

Best and worst of Guardiola on show on breathless evening

Guardiola: Best and worst. Photo: PA
Guardiola: Best and worst. Photo: PA

Miguel Delaney

There was a notable case of rich-on-rich robbery here, with Monaco expertly snatching goals from Manchester City's suspect defence but also conceding five themselves in a game of thrilling openness.

This was the Silva derby, with David (Manchester City) and Bernardo (Monaco) decorating a tie that will become a must-see for purists. These teams brought the best out of one another on a night for virtuosos. It was as if a pact had been agreed by two expressive sides to try things, let skill run free, entertain the audience.

They brought out the best, but also the worst for City: the defensive vulnerability that characterises the Pep Guardiola transition. City, semi-finalists last year, have much to offer Europe, but this vibrant Monaco side were sent by a spiteful god to expose the biggest task facing Guardiola: the construction of a rearguard capable of stopping teams who know how to slice them apart.

Credit City, though, for striking back. Sergio Aguero's second of the game brought the scores level at 3-3 and showed there is life in the old (or 28-year-old) dog yet, regardless of Gabriel Jesus's arrival in Manchester. Talking of old dogs, Radamel Falcao has been rescued. His turn in the box for Monaco's third bamboozled John Stones and left him hollow-eyed. Stones avenged that crime with City's fourth, a tap-in.

A crazy game, with a melting scoreboard. All across the field, attacking players felt emboldened to do what came naturally to them, with twists and turns, flicks and razor-blade passing. Half an hour in, Guardiola was seen frantically coaching his defenders to move the ball forward more positively. But there was not much need to tell the 22 out there to be adventurous. So eager was Willy Caballero to keep the tempo high that he passed straight to a Monaco shirt to set up Falcao's equaliser after Raheem Sterling had put City ahead.

Both sides decided early it would be an open fight, with Monaco's dazzling home-grown contingent grabbing the chance to show why they are a superior side in France to PSG, who last week beat Barcelona 4-0. At the heart of midfield, Tiemoue Bakayoko, 22, carries the ball with impressive conviction. Kylian Mbappe, 18, is one of those quick, agile and assured young forwards a fan of any club would want to see crossing their threshold.

Bernardo Silva, meanwhile, is surely the next great European No 10, assuming he is allowed in from wide areas. His dazzling footwork and sweeping passes down City's left-hand side were hellish for the makeshift left-back, Fernandinho, who was part of a back-four regularly torn apart by Monaco's raids. Lemar, another attacking midfielder, was no easier to handle as he connected beautifully with Mbappe and Silva.

And prowling at the front of this ensemble was a player who caused spectators to look away in sympathy when he was at Manchester United and Chelsea. Falcao is still a long way short of the lethal predator Pep Guardiola will remember from Spanish football, but remains a lurking menace - certainly for City centre-backs already softened up by the running of younger opponents.

Dismiss all thoughts of Monaco being plankton in a Champions League of sharks. This is a serious side: league leaders in France, with 76 goals from 26 outings.

Falcao had scored 13 in 14 games before he crept in behind Bacary Sagna and headed Monaco in front.

Guardiola has won all seven of the round-of-16 ties as a manager but never before has he attempted to impose his defensive philosophy on players seemingly incapable of putting it into practice.

A shortage of quality is one obstacle. The mid-pitch spin by Mbappe that left Nicolas Otamendi dizzy was followed by the City defender running back and jumping in with no hope of reaching ball or man. Worse followed when a contentious penalty was awarded against Otamendi for fouling Falcao. Cabellero saved it, but in the next passage of play kicked a clearance straight to a Monaco player.

Whatever difficulties they have at the back, Guardiola has at least instilled a fierce willingness to fight back and not be discouraged by defensive chaos. At 3-3 they poured forward, scoring twice and sending the Etihad crowd into raptures. Why should anyone care this was a rugby score? Football needs these hell-for-leather games where the goals crash in and defensive gurus are given the night off. The clearest evidence of City's spirit was that Monaco were stressed and panicky in the last 10 minutes as they lost control of a game they must have thought they had won.

So now City head to Monaco with three away goals against them, but five in the bag. Cracking. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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