If, as expected, his team win a second league title on Sunday, Pep Guardiola may just have outshone his record-shattering performance as Manchester City manager a year ago. Why? He hasn’t even got the best team now.
Liverpool probably shade it, head to head. Liverpool have superior full backs, the season’s outstanding central defender in Virgil van Dijk and two forwards with 42 goals between them.
City’s clearest strength is their midfielders, as befits a manager who once said he would pick 11 of them if he could.
If Manchester City seal the title on Sunday, it will be a bigger success than winning it last year
Yet, even there, for the way Jurgen Klopp wishes to play, his midfield is tailor-made. Put the teams side by side and it could be argued that Guardiola has more retooling to do this summer than Klopp.
Guardiola has Fernandinho, David Silva and Vincent Kompany approaching their mid-30s, he has complications at full back where his options appear increasingly inferior to Liverpool’s. Klopp has his team where he wants them right now.
Yes, every squad, however coherently planned, can always bear improvement but the two legs against Barcelona revealed a group at Liverpool that absolutely understand, believe in and can carry out their manager’s strategy. It is no surprise that it is City who are about to make a very early entry into the summer transfer market with a move for Rodri of Atletico Madrid.
Liverpool shade the combined XI with Manchester City’s biggest strength in midfield areas
Yet this is not to decry a team who are hopeful of accruing 198 points across two seasons, but to praise them for doing just that and more.
Guardiola was right to compare his players to game-changing sportsmen such as Tiger Woods and Usain Bolt. He might have thrown in Serena Williams or the Australia cricket team of the Michael Slater era for good measure.
Like Woods, like Bolt, like Williams, like Slater, City have altered the landscape and what is considered possible.
They have changed the numbers, reconfigured success in their field. Results that were once considered solid or even impressive in a Premier League campaign are now potential failings.
Watching City settle for nothing less than three points at Old Trafford is like seeing Slater send the first gentle ball of the day in a Test match to the boundary.
Once he did that, and did it regularly, the numbers in Test cricket were never the same again. The rest of the world had to score like Australia or fall behind.
We credit Twenty20 and the short-form game for the attacking Test play we see now but Australia began the trend a decade before that version of cricket was even conceived.
Until last year, a goalless draw away at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge or Anfield was considered a job well done. No longer.
City are changing the sporting landscape like Michael Slater and Australia’s Test cricket team
Had Liverpool won at Manchester United in February, as City subsequently did, they would be leading the league by a point now.
There is never one game in which a title is decided. If Liverpool fall short this season there are eight matches which were drawn or lost, any one of which could have made the difference. Obviously, the defeat by City in January and the draw at Anfield are the biggest. Yet equally, turning either the home point with Leicester or the away draw with West Ham into wins would have seen Liverpool clear.
That’s what City have done: their own campaign is so relentlessly consistent that one misstep in any game, however minor, can prove crucial. The fateful stumble can come at any time, at any place.
Who could have imagined Liverpool letting the lead slip with eight minutes to go at Arsenal in November could be so important? A point at the Emirates was still a decent result, until this City team came along.
Fast forward to now, and Alexandre Lacazette’s equaliser is what has Liverpool pinned in second place.
Guardiola has changed the very concept of winning in the English game. He has changed how we view results and he has done it without some of his best players, this season in particular: players it was really felt would be important.
Benjamin Mendy has barely played this season, Kevin De Bruyne has been fit to start just 11 Premier League games and the loss of Fernandinho for more than a month at the end of February and then for the title run-in should have been more significant.
Guardiola managed to maintain levels despite injuries to Kevin De Bruyne and Fernandinho
Yes, City have strength in depth. Yet they have no midfield creator in De Bruyne’s class; nobody who can quite replicate Fernandinho’s role. When everybody is fit these will be two of the first names on Guardiola’s team sheet.
Yet he has done without them, so far, at the most pressured stage in the season and maintained what is now a 13-game winning run under the strain of knowing one slip as good as hands Liverpool the title.
There are plenty of clubs over time who have had an edge on their rivals in terms of resources, squad depth, investment — Manchester United for a decade or more until Roman Abramovich came along — but they haven’t racked up numbers like City.
There were 11 records broken when City won the league last season and more have already tumbled, whatever Sunday’s matches hold.
City are already the first team since Preston in 1888-89 and 1889-90 to beat all of their league opponents in consecutive seasons.
Yet for Preston that meant defeating 11 clubs twice – for City, 19 – and Preston didn’t have to put up with some of the trifles that might frustrate City on occasions, such as crossbars.
Nothing is won yet, of course. If what we have seen this week is any indication, anything could happen at Brighton and probably will. Yet even if the season contains one final twist and City are denied the title, their influence on our game remains unquestionable.
The only reason a second club is chasing a points total in the high nineties is because City have demanded that is the standard required to win the league.
It won’t always be this way – it can’t be – but if the levels at the top of the Premier League are better than ever – and results in Europe suggest that is the case – Guardiola drove that change, and he hasn’t even got the best team this season.
Messi’s genius undimmed despite Anfield calamity
We are not hearing so much from Mario Balotelli this week on the subject of the world’s greatest footballers.
Previously, after the Lionel Messi show during Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Liverpool, Balotelli was keen to engage in the long-running and futile debate around individual supremacy.
‘For the love of football, please do not compare Messi to the No 7 of Juventus any more,’ he posted on Instagram.
However many did — and negatively. For, inexplicably, every time Messi is great it serves not just to highlight his genius but to diminish that of Cristiano Ronaldo.
It is an argument as wrong-headed as using Portugal’s Euro 2016 victory to decry Messi and his failure to win a major tournament with Argentina.
Lionel Messi and Barcelona’s calamity at Anfield on Tuesday should not detract from his genius
Both men are wonderful footballers. That they are also so different in style and personality should heighten our appreciation, not make us choose sides.
John Peel once said that naming a favourite record or group is like selecting a favourite limb. So it is with Messi and Ronaldo. Why choose?
The calamity that befell Messi and his team at Anfield on Tuesday should not detract from his genius. It was a single match, a single performance, and it still took all of Liverpool’s might to contain him.
Messi remained far and away Barcelona’s finest player, even in defeat. Best, then, to leave him out of the recriminations and hope that what unfolded might tease a little respect for the much maligned ‘No 7 of Juventus’ from Balotelli and his fellow travellers.
Messi, for all his talent, could not drag a fading Barcelona team to European success, yet that is exactly what Ronaldo did for three years straight before leaving Real Madrid. Look at them now. A little appreciation is due, surely?
It has been a privilege to witness the achievements of two extraordinary talents but why not leave it there? We may as well decide there must be a preference for Liverpool or Tottenham’s comebacks this week. Can’t we delight in both? Football is meant to be fun, not Sophie’s Choice.
Football fans should delight in both Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo instead of choosing sides
In addition to the £4million they spent unsuccessfully suing their anchor tenant, West Ham, the London Legacy Development Corporation also handed over £100,000 acquiring a communications strategy — presumably advising on how to avoid getting nailed for wasting millions on needless legal disputes.
This would not be so bad if the LLDC didn’t already employ a communications team earning £260,000 annually. Maybe there are some narratives beyond the wit of even the most inventive spin doctor.
A company posting losses of £22.7m — while getting into a legal row with their most consistent and lucrative source of income — probably fits that category. Indeed, now Tottenham’s new stadium has launched to superior reviews, how long can the chiefs of the LLDC and their various stadium management arms survive?
Each month brings news of another sport, another potential revenue stream, deserting the stadium.
Saracens said recently they will be playing their marquee matches at Tottenham and the new ground has been chosen as the venue for rugby’s European club finals in 2021.
Meanwhile, years of mismanagement have turned what should have been an iconic venue in east London into the poor relation. It is going to take a lot more than £100,000 to buff the talents of the geniuses at the LLDC.
Abuse hurts even flint-hard Brady
Police are investigating Carl Benjamin, the UKIP candidate in the European elections, who thought it was acceptable to joke about whether or not he would rape Labour MP Jess Phillips — although not before she was confronted in the street by a random male stranger who berated her for being upset at this, and then ran after her shouting: ‘I pay your wages.’
If you want to know the level of daily harassment women in the public eye receive, consider that Karren Brady says, time over again, she would not have got involved in football if she had known the abuse she would receive.
‘Curses have been spat at me, abuse sung and chanted at me — by phone, on paper, and latterly on social media. Truly, knowing what I know now, I don’t think I would have bothered,’ she wrote in January.
Brady is football’s self-styled first lady. Certainly, she is one of the most successful female sports administrators in the country, with a reputation for being a flint-hard negotiator and not easily fazed. If even she thinks she can do without it, we really have drifted a long way from the garden.
Karren Brady says she would not have got into football if she knew the abuse she would face
Tottenham have messed with the perfect ending, really. Until Lucas Moura’s third goal, it seemed fitting that the two best teams of this magnificent Premier League season could share the trophies.
Even if Manchester City won the title, Liverpool could claim the Champions League, against Ajax. Now, that would mean denying Spurs after their incredible European journey. Even neutrals feel conflicted about this one.
Life imitates art in Norwich
Those who have seen the wonderful Mike Bassett: England Manager will know that our hero answers the country’s call having won the Mr Clutch Cup for Norwich City.
You may also remember that, during the club’s victory parade, the driver takes a wrong turn in Norwich city centre and their open-top bus ends up barrelling along the A11 dual carriageway at 70mph, with Bassett and his entire team freezing half to death in the headwind.
This week, the very real players of the very real Norwich City could be seen trying to give their own bright yellow open-top bus a push after it broke down, during their very real victory parade for winning the Championship.
Unsuccessful, they completed the trip on a bright red City Sightseeing bus instead. This is why satire is dead.
Norwich City’s players were seen trying to push their open-top push after it broke down
Seeing as the royal baby arrived on the day of Vincent Kompany’s 30-yard screamer to put Manchester City on the brink of the title, a trick appears to have been missed with the name Archie Harrison. Prince Vince — seriously, what is wrong with you people?