Friday 18 January 2019

Stephen Hunt: All is not lost for City

Pep Guardiola's side looked shell-shocked at Anfield but have the firepower to test Reds

Manchester City branding ahead of the match. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Manchester City branding ahead of the match. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Stephen Hunt

They may not have remained unbeaten like the Arsenal Invincibles, they may not win the quadruple or even the treble like Manchester United, but make no mistake, this Manchester City team is one of the best of the Premier League era.

It has been a difficult week for Pep Guardiola's team but it doesn't take away the fact that their league form all season has been outstanding. Their celebrations are on hold, but they will win the title and they will do so Guardiola's way when 99 out of 100 experts predicted it could not be done in England.

Apart from City fans, the only people who really wanted Guardiola to succeed were the academy coaches who needed someone to prove that brand of football would work, because that is all they have been doing for the last four or five years.

No one was raving about the way Antonio Conte won the league with Chelsea last season, although a few managers have tried three at the back since. But everyone would love to play Pep's way and he is entitled to feel proud of that. It is easy on the eye and very much the Spanish style in the English Premier League, which many thought couldn't happen.

There are so many coaching badges flying around at clubs now that the players today must be better coached and prepared and they have it all to a certain degree, but I would say this City side is up there with the very best because they are the most dominant in possession.

When I first played against Arsenal a few years ago now, I didn't know where to go to get the ball back off them. Now as many as 10 teams make those kind of movements in the Premier League but Pep has brought something extra to that game.

Their game is possession-based from the first minute and Pep has a 15-pass rule to break teams down. The difference between this season and last is that Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva want to get forward and they do not pass the ball for the sake of it. Around them, players make different movements to other teams, so the full-backs play high and they close the opposition down in midfield and defence and they are brave, leaving spaces behind.

There are three I'd single out. De Bruyne must be a dream to play with because he is not greedy or looking to be the hero. He consistently just wants to play forward; he passes the ball to create space and opportunities for others. There's a big difference in a player whose passes open up the pitch or get the ball behind the opposition defence.

Don't forget, De Bruyne used to be a winger and he is turning into an Iniesta/Xavi-style player, with an even greater range of passing than those two. He takes the ball from back four at times and penetrates more from the central areas, looking for the killer pass for the players up front because he knows they can make runs into space and they know they are going to get the ball.

A lot of people wrote Raheem Sterling off, but not those who understand football. No one would have expected him to get more than 20 goals this season, but he needed time to develop and he has the attributes to be a top player. He will miss two or three chances in a game because he is not a natural finisher but he is a prime example of a player who has embraced Guardiola and is learning from him.

It was a mistake not to start him in the first leg at Anfield. And if Sergio Aguero doesn't start, City are out, or they will need a miracle if he is not fit. He is the one striker who has that cutting edge: when the ball falls to him in the box, he scores. When it looked like he was on his way out of the club over a year ago, Aguero probably had a rethink and asked questions like 'where will I go?' and 'who wants me?' and 'how good and loyal have Manchester City been to me over the years?' or 'can I work my way into the team playing the manager's way?'

He has answered all those questions with his goals and has played exactly to Guardiola's standards. The tie is not over. If Liverpool can score three in the first half against City, then City can score four over 90 minutes against Liverpool. The problem is Liverpool can score one or two as well. The big test for City will be keeping the clean sheet.

The City players looked shell-shocked in that opening half. I don't think it was anything to do with the attack on the bus; I just feel they didn't handle the atmosphere. The noise of the Anfield crowd sends shivers down your spine and gives the Liverpool players a 10 per cent advantage on a European night.

If there is one thing I don't like about Guardiola, it is when he applauds his players when things go wrong. So when his keeper Ederson booted the ball into touch, Guardiola put his hands in the air in the technical area and clapped. It embarrasses his players and if anything makes their mistakes worse. Ederson is not stupid. He is on more than £100,000 a week. He should not be told to keep going. Players are big enough and bold enough to get on with the game without the manager encouraging them in such a false way.

Of course City would have wanted to win the title against Manchester United at the Etihad last night but they will not be too disappointed, even after letting a two-goal lead slip. They will be picking up the trophy next month. The Champions League is all that matters now.

Last night's defeat is the worst possible result for Liverpool. It adds more fuel to the fire, if that's possible, and it is set up for a massive night on Tuesday now. Jurgen Klopp's side are going to be bombarded from the first minute.

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