Pep Guardiola has refused to look beyond the next game for months but, after watching his relentless Manchester City side claim a 20th consecutive victory courtesy of Saturday’s hard-fought win over an impressive West Ham United, the manager dared to cast a glimpse at a potentially golden horizon.
The Premier League season may run until May 23 but, should City beat Wolverhampton Wanderers tomorrow and follow that up with victories over Manchester United on Sunday and Southampton three days later, you got the impression listening to Guardiola that the runaway leaders may feel they will have one hand on the trophy. An eight-day stretch, then, in which to take a giant leap towards a third title in four seasons.
“They are terribly important and I’m terribly happy. These three games are maybe a huge, huge part of our Premier League,” the City manager said. “For what we have in our legs and minds, these three games will be so difficult, like (West Ham), because we are not fresh.”
Guardiola had made seven changes against West Ham to the side who beat Borussia Monchengladbach in the Champions League barely 60 hours earlier in an attempt to inject some freshness and the most notable among them was Sergio Aguero, handed his first start since the previous meeting with David Moyes’s side, coincidentally, four months ago.
Aside from the result, it was not quite the comeback Aguero would have hoped for. It was the Argentina striker who turned over possession in the lead-up to Michail Antonio’s equaliser, a reflection of his wider lack of sharpness which, at times, felt pronounced.
After so long out, no one should be surprised by that, just as it would be wise to remember that even the younger Aguero often needed a considerable run of games to get back up to speed after much shorter lay-offs than the long injury and coronavirus-affected absence he is now returning from.
He is not dissimilar to former Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney in that regard.
Yet perhaps the more pressing question is whether Aguero is going to get enough minutes in his legs to rediscover the rhythm and edge that has made him the greatest goalscorer in City’s history.
Indeed, it is a reflection of how far this City side have come that, after so much talk about how they might cope in the absence of Aguero, the Argentine has barely registered in the conversation for months. That is testament to the success of the system Guardiola has implemented and victory was secured by goals from his two centre-halves, Ruben Dias and John Stones, who, remarkably, have scored more goals than they have conceded in the 16 games they have started together this season.
With the quadruple still very much on, Guardiola remains convinced that Aguero could yet play a defining role in City’s season, although if that was as an impact substitute you sense the manager would settle for it. Perhaps that will be the way of it – maybe there is another Queens Park Rangers moment to come from Aguero, just as a squad player, not the star turn.
Out of contract in June, when he will turn 33, and facing an uncertain future, these certainly promise to be an intriguing few months where Aguero is concerned.
“I always think we need him in this part of the season in the right moments because he has a special talent and quality,” Guardiola said. “He’s going to help.
“At the end, there will be games that will be tight and difficult and we need ‘Kun’. We need guys who can score a goal and the best guy in those terms is him. But he came from one year injured and needs time – as any player would.”
You would still bank on Aguero to score a pressure goal over Gabriel Jesus, but West Ham’s defence was less comfortable once Aguero made way for the Brazilian shortly after the hour and City suddenly had more mobility in attack.
Yet Guardiola complained that Aguero had been left “so isolated in the position he was playing” and the reaction of substitute Rodri as he took his seat for the second half – widening his eyes and blowing out his cheeks – after being asked what the manager had said at half-time suggested the team had been given a rocket in the dressing room.
Credit to West Ham for that. Moyes has fashioned a side who, if they maintain this performance level, will remain a good bet for a top-four finish and who should have claimed an equaliser in the fourth and final minute of stoppage time when Issa Diop headed the excellent Jesse Lingard’s cross wide.
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