Doubts linger, but Pep Guardiola can light a fire

Graeme Souness had enough of fielding questions, fancied turning the tables.

“Here’s one. Look at all the big teams in Europe; who has the best starting 11?”

Paul Merson: “Well, the only team that have a team is Tottenham.”

Souness isn’t having that. “Not just in England. I’m talking in Europe.”

Jamie Carragher: “Barcelona?”

Merson: “I think they’re weak at the back”.

A journo obliges: “You’d have to say Real Madrid?”

Souness: “I think you’d say Bayern Munich. And I don’t think winning the Bundesliga for the last three years is….”

Merson: “I could win that, honestly. If I went there, I’d win that.”

Carragher: “You’ve got your headline, boys; ‘Merse better than Guardiola’.”

Merson: “Obviously not this year. Dortmund have bought well this year. And I haven’t had enough time to dip my toe in the transfer market.”

Souness: “But you’ve just taken their best fucking player, in Hummels.”

When the laughter subsided at the launch of the Sky Sports Premier League coverage, the doubts about Manchester City’s new supremo hadn’t cleared.

“It’s the hardest job he’s had,” warned Souness. “His two previous jobs; he’s walked into a great situation at Barcelona and how strong is the German league when they’re the best team every season - if you go from Lewandowski, Goetsche, Hummels, they can just say ‘we’re having them’ - how strong is that league?

“This is a real test for him. A difficult one.”

Merson, if the Walsall experience hasn’t soured him on managerial life for good, would prefer Pep’s old gig to his new posting.

“He’s a great manager, but he’s managed two teams who’ve probably had 90% of the play and played in leagues where they’re the only ones who can win it - in Germany - and in Spain, it was them and Real Madrid.

“He’s got to be able to cope with going to Burnley on a Tuesday night, who’ll probably be bottom of the league, and still have his players up for the game.

“But when you’re manager at Barcelona or Bayern Munich, you literally just make sure you don’t forget your boots.”

And yet, the more they thrashed it out, and notwithstanding Guardiola’s reputation as a master tactician who has helped shape the way modern football is played, the more the Sky Sports trio felt his impact might just be greatest on those grim midweek away days, the kind of nights when recent City sides have suffered existential crises.

Merson: “The last Man City manager, that’s probably why he got the sack. Some of the games he lost seemed to be games where he didn’t get the players up for it.”

Carragher: “I think Guardiola will change that, from Pellegrini. I think there will be a lot more hunger from Manchester City, I think you’ll see a big difference. Not so much the way they play with the ball, because they’ve had some of the best players in the league for the last few years in terms of Silva and Aguero, de Bruyne as well.

“But I think without the ball there will be a massive change. I think you’ll see a lot more of that hunger.”

Souness: “I think he’ll light a fire under a lot of them. I think for a couple of years under Man City, under the previous manager, some of those players were allowed to get in their armchairs.”

So what would represent success for Guardiola, if he can keep them upright?

“I don’t think he’ll be sitting there thinking he’s got to win the Champions League,” suggested Merson. “He didn’t win it with Bayern Munich and Bayern Munich were a better footballing team than Man City. It’s not a gimme. It would be a major success if they win the league, considering what United have spent.”

Souness concurred: “I think for starters Premier League would be success. It’s not an easy league to win.”

As for the renewal of Guardiola’s rivalry with Jose Mourinho, it’s not a dynamic that fascinates the Scot.

“It’s always about players. Players are the most important people in football. They’ll be exchanges of views. I don’t think they’ll have love for each other. So I think you can expect whoever is top dog to be enjoying that moment.

“Two managers having a go at it each other doesn’t impact on players. None of that matters a jot.”

Sky Sports has a record 159 live Premier League games this season - up to four times more than any other broadcaster - including Saturday 3pms for the first time ever. Upgrade to Sky Sports today by calling 0818 904 082 and get HD with Sky Box Sets Free for 12 months.

Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis:

Who will be Premier League Champions 2016/17?


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