Pep Guardiola’s Man City still facing the ultimate test

If ever a manager was entitled to indulge in self-congratulation, it was Pep Guardiola after his Manchester City side went to Old Trafford, totally out-footballed their arch-rivals and nearest challengers, and came away with a 2-1 victory which was rather more emphatic than that narrow scoreline would suggest.

Pep Guardiola’s Man City still facing the ultimate test

“People said we couldn’t play the way we did in Barcelona in England,” said Guardiola, a three-time La Liga winner in four seasons at the helm at the Nou Camp. “But it is possible and we did it. We can play this way in England. I knew that last season. Always, I believed we could do it. Everyone can play how they want, that’s why football is so beautiful. I’m happy to go to Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford and to beat them in this way.”

There might still be some way to go before Man City can collect the silverware which will give tangible meaning to their current domestic dominance but, barring a collapse of catastrophic proportions, their 11-point lead at the top is already looking like an unassailable advantage.

However, there’s now a much more interesting question thrown up by Guardiola’s comments in light of yesterday’s Champions League draw. Playing the Barcelona way might be proving successful in England, but will it prove successful in Europe?

Because, yes, the manager is Pep Guardiola but, no, Manchester City are not Barcelona... at least, not yet.

The best football team I’ve been fortunate to see in the flesh was the Barca side which taught Manchester United — yes, them again — a chastening lesson in the Champions League final at Wembley in 2011, the Catalans’ 3-1 victory a masterclass in possession, penetration and potent finishing, as Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and the rest showcased a dazzling brand of football which was not just, literally, out of United’s league, but seemingly of extraterrestrial origin.

That performance remains the high watermark for any club with ambitions to win playing the Barcelona way, including, as it happens, Barca themselves.

Not since Arsenal’s best years under Arsene Wenger has there been an English team so committed to playing a possession-based game as City are under Guardiola.

Sadly for Wenger, the closest the Gunners came to turning that approach into European dominance was in 2006 in Paris when, having had keeper Jens Lehmann sent off early on, Arsenal could consider themselves unlucky to lose 2-1 at a time when Ronaldinho, Eto’o and Deco were the main men for Barcelona, with Iniesta only a second-half sub, Xavi staying rooted to the bench, and an 18-year-old Lionel Messi not even making the match-day squad.

Barcelona may have come a distance since then but, in relative terms, Man City have come even further, their 2005/6 season having ended with the team in 15th place in the Premier League, Andy Cole their leading scorer with nine goals and, lest we forget, Irish interest at the club represented by Richard Dunne, Stephen Ireland and Willo Flood. Now, even with those mega-millions having transformed the club out of all recognition, the ultimate test still lies ahead: Bucking the Brexit dynamic, can they can return England to centre-stage in Europe again for the first time since Chelsea lifted the glittering prize in 2012?

Already looking by far the likeliest of a record five Premier League clubs in the last 16 to go furthest in the competition, City’s confidence won’t have been dented by yesterday’s kind draw, which saw them paired with Basel in the first round of knock-out games.

Their fate contrasts sharply with those other moneybags Euro wannabes, PSG, who have drawn Real Madrid, the holders’ penalty for a second-place group finish being this mouth-watering clash, which will see Ronaldo and Neymar go head-to-head.

Of the four other Premier League clubs, Chelsea drew the shortest straw by being pitted against Barcelona, while Liverpool are entitled to fancy their chances of out-gunning fellow high scorers Porto.

Spurs will have their credentials properly tested by Juventus and Manchester United can’t afford to take anything for granted against Sevilla.

However, it’s scintillating City who are England’s standard-bearers heading into the second half of the season. Whether they are ready to be crowned European City of the year is by some distance the most intriguing question club football will answer in 2018.

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