City style fades but newfound steel gives Guardiola reason to believe

17 October 2017 23:31

When Maurizio Sarri suggested before Tuesday's Champions League Group F encounter that facing Manchester City filled him with more dread than the prospect of playing Real Madrid, there was a suspicion the famously chain-smoking Napoli coach was blowing a fair bit of the stuff.

After 13 minutes at the Etihad Stadium, with Pep Guardiola's Premier League leaders 2-0 up and running riot, it felt like a succinct prophecy a little too grim and accurate for the impressive number of travelling supporters from the south of Italy.

The pre-match pleasantries were unrelentingly pleasant. Guardiola anointed Napoli as one of the three best footballing sides in Europe and his team seemed to get the message.

City opened with a maniacal intensity – if Napoli were as good as their boss said they were, they were not about to hang around and find out.

There was a subtle tactical shift from Saturday's 7-2 evisceration of Stoke City. Along with slicing through their opponents with cutting short passes, a key part of the approach from Guardiola's men was to use Fernandinho as a means of quickly switching play to Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane on the flanks.

Both wingers were involved as Sterling scored his eighth of the season and Gabriel Jesus joined him on that number as the imperious Kevin De Bruyne added to his catalogue of assists.

For all the talent in this City XI, De Bruyne appears increasingly irreplaceable the better they get. Being spoken of in the same breath as Lionel Messi before the game – Guardiola was keen to dial down the hyperbole – did little to throw the Belgium international. He was running the show again, he hit the bar and Jesus had one cleared off the line.

For the first half hour, Napoli were the punch-drunk boxer lolling on the ropes. But their heads cleared and suddenly it was Guardiola's fears being played out.

Errors crept into City's increasingly skittish defensive play, none more so than when Kyle Walker groped unhelpfully at Raul Albiol and gave away a penalty. Dries Mertens has nine goals already this season but took the spot-kick of a man seemingly without that many in a lifetime. Ederson saved. The Etihad roared.

That Napoli's resolve was not instantly drained by that setback is to their immense credit and the performance by Sarri's men from that point should chill misfiring Serie A champions Juventus.

City were the side grateful for the half-time whistle, at which point De Bruyne's uncharacteristic rage with the fourth official highlighted their fraying focus.

There was plenty more luck to be ridden during the second period, when John Stones blocked desperately from Marek Hamsik and escaped punishment for handball. A second penalty arrived, Fernandinho's tired clump at Faouzi Ghoulam encapsulating the final half hour as De Bruyne's artistry did the first.

"I'm not here to entertain, I'm here to win," Guardiola said after the Stoke match. As defender Danilo came on for Jesus in the 87th minute it was clear this was no joke either. Jose Mourinho does not have a Mancunian monopoly on pragmatism.

Bernardo Silva, De Bruyne and Sane no longer tore at the Napoli defence; they wasted time in the corner. A beautiful start spawned an ugly finish but City held on.

The mere act of doing so felt significant for a club still looking to make themselves at home in the Champions League in their seventh season at the top table.

Also, City won their first five matches in 2015-16 and the opening 10 last term before collapsing under scrutiny.

Many of these players have followed storming starts with cold, hard and unforgiving winters in Manchester. By beating Napoli 2-1, Guardiola's current crop showed they have enough reserves to keep the fires burning.

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