Sport Premier League

Thursday 19 July 2018

Napoli wary of Guardiola bearing gifts after manager's high praise

Sterling: At City for the long-term Photo: PA
Sterling: At City for the long-term Photo: PA

Mark Critchley

When Pep Guardiola says you're one of the best attacking football teams in the world, you are one of the best attacking football teams in the world. That's how it works.

It is a bit like Ninjinsky saying you have nimble feet or Oliver Reed complimenting your industrious liver. Having taken charge of perhaps the greatest aesthetic spectacle that the modern game has produced, never mind the greatest team, he knows what he's talking about and he takes what he's talking about very seriously.

Kevin De Bruyne is in particularly stunning form Photo: Getty
Kevin De Bruyne is in particularly stunning form Photo: Getty

For as irascible as Guardiola can be, he is not one to casually engage in psychological warfare with opponents. He is nothing but sincere about the beauty of football and when he compliments a certain team's style, you can be sure he means it.

For weeks now, the Manchester City manager has heaped praise on Napoli, the leaders of Serie A who visit the Etihad in a Champions League Group F meeting tonight.

Maurizio Sarri's side sit at the summit of their domestic league having won each of their eight games so far, with 26 goals scored and just five conceded.

Their front three of Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne is rightly being touted as one of the best in Europe.

Together, last season, they scored 60 goals and laid on 30 assists. Is it any wonder that, after August's group-stage draw, Guardiola called Napoli "the best team in the pot"?

Such compliments were not accepted though by the Italian club's colourful president Aurelio De Laurentiis, who accused Guardiola of being disingenuous and attempting to play mind games.

"It concerned me," De Laurentiis said. "I wouldn't like it if Guardiola's praise resulted in my players losing focus. He's a wily old fox and he knows the quality of his squad, which is remarkable."

At his press conference yesterday to preview Napoli's visit, Guardiola denied having an ulterior motive when making the comments.

"I heard from the president of Napoli in 'Gazzetta' that my words are just to distract Napoli but it is just what I believe," he said.

"I believe they are a really good team in all senses but if the president prefers to hear they are a disaster team I can say that as well.

"I like to watch them. I am a manager, a professional but a spectator as well. I like to watch football and I like to watch Napoli when I am sat in my home.

"I love many, many things about a Sarri team. It is a big test. For me it is fascinating to have a challenge."

If Napoli are to be considered one of Europe's best attacking outfits, then City cannot be far behind. The 7-2 demolition of Stoke City on Saturday was, in Guardiola's mind, the best performance of his tenure to date and his side are showing why they were considered pre-season title favourites, with Kevin De Bruyne in particularly stunning form.

While a Premier League crown would provide some vindication for Guardiola's methods, his main responsibility in Manchester is to establish City among European football's elite - the coterie of clubs that dominate this competition year in, year out.

After a 100pc start to the group stage, Napoli provide City's toughest European test yet, with an away fixture in Naples to follow in a fortnight's time.

Napoli, meanwhile, have a Serie A clash against second-placed Inter to consider and De Laurentiis has claimed they will rest players with the league fixture in mind.

Guardiola, however, is taking no notice of such claims.

"If he is travelling this afternoon with (Napoli head coach) Maurizio Sarri in the same plane, or in a private jet, he can ask him what team he is going to play.

"I think in the last 10 games they have played the same line-up. I can announce to you which players are going to play for Napoli against us."

The City manager also revealed that Sergio Aguero is nearing a return after breaking a rib in a car crash in Amsterdam last month.

"Day by day he is much, much better," Guardiola said.

"Yesterday (Sunday) he made an amazing training session. The day before Stoke, he was good but not perfect. He was much better."

Next to him at yesterday's press conference was Raheem Sterling who is showing signs of finally delivering on his potential, making it unsurprising that he had no interest in a mooted summer switch to Arsenal.

Asked whether he had spoken to Guardiola since Arsenal expressed their interest, Sterling replied: "I didn't need to because I already spoke to him in the summer and we had a positive talk.

"I didn't have any negative thoughts. I'm here for the long term, I signed for five years."

(© Independent News Service)

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