Sunday 19 January 2020

Catching Liverpool is 'unrealistic' claims pessimistic Guardiola

Pep Guardiola insists he will stay at Manchester City next season, but offered no guarantees that he will be staying there after that. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Pep Guardiola insists he will stay at Manchester City next season, but offered no guarantees that he will be staying there after that. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

James Ducker

Pep Guardiola and Brendan Rodgers had the warmest of embraces on the touchline at the end of a fixture that is fast becoming one of the most riveting the Premier League has to offer.

They chatted enthusiastically and then momentarily appeared to be going their own ways after Manchester City's 3-1 win, until Guardiola spun on his heels and returned to playfully bear-hug an unsuspecting Rodgers and, from over his Leicester City counterpart's shoulder, whisper something into his ear.

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Perhaps it was Guardiola reminding Rodgers to make sure he did them both a favour by inflicting a first league defeat of the campaign on Liverpool at the King Power Stadium on Thursday.

And yet, the Manchester City manager knows it is futile expending too much energy worrying about what Liverpool might do.

Banking on a team who have lost just once in their past 56 Premier League assignments to lose four times in the second half of the season seems as wishful as believing a City side with a defence this fragile can remain unbeaten over the remainder of the campaign.

"When a team has 16 victories from 17, it's unrealistic to think we are going to chase them," Guardiola said, before he began to hope. "It's unrealistic right now. We have to try to win our games, secure Champions League (qualification) for next season and then you never know, no? If they (Liverpool) drop a couple of games, and we win and win... I don't know.

"When one team loses one game in the last 53, 54, I'm not optimistic they are going to lose four or five in 10 or 11 games because they are incredibly strong. So we must relax and play like this and we'll see in the end what happens. Hopefully Leicester can make a good performance against Liverpool, but we've to think about our incredibly tough game against Wolves, with Adama [Traore] and [Raul] Jimenez."

And there's the rub. Leicester might beat Liverpool but, even if they do, can City again find a way of attacking with the level of dazzling intensity and pressing coordination illustrated on Saturday against a Wolverhampton Wanderers side who picked them off on the counter-attack at the Etihad en route to a 2-0 win in October? It is a high-wire act Guardiola is balancing.

Any team wanting to defend with such a high line as City need players with pace at the back, but in the absence of those and bearing in mind Guardiola has no intention of curbing his voracious appetite for attacking football, there is a huge onus on the champions getting it right time and again at the front end of the pitch.

Unpicked by Manchester United on the break here a fortnight earlier, history appeared in danger of repeating itself against Leicester when one pass from Harvey Barnes cut City's precarious defence apart and, from there, the electric Jamie Vardy zipped in behind Fernandinho and dinked an exquisite finish over the advancing Ederson. It was not the only time on an absorbing evening of football that Vardy got in behind - and the fourth successive home league game in which City had fallen behind. But if they can maintain the quality of the press demonstrated against Leicester, the champions will overpower most opponents.

Bernardo Silva was outstanding in a deeper-lying midfield role and Ilkay Gundogan impressed as a pivot, with Rodri on the substitutes' bench, and with Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus as effective defensively as they were offensively, the peerless Kevin De Bruyne, operating in a free role, had the platform to wreak devastation.

At times, even Rodgers had to admit he could only stand back and admire the relentless Belgium midfielder in action.

"Kevin is unbelievable," the Leicester manager said. "You can block up spaces and be tight and organised but the world-class players will find the space.

"That is the first time I have come up against him in an actual game and to see it live - that level and quality - was absolutely... it is great. I love talent and he is a great talent.

"You have a plan but it is very difficult [to counter him]. He executes it in every single game he plays. My experiences against that level of talent is you try to block up space and anticipate where they go, but their inbuilt brain for football finds the space and they have the quality to hurt you." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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