Why Pep is at City
Manager must show that City finally belong among big boys
MAN CITY v MOENCHENGLADBACH
(Tomorrow, 2.40am, Singtel TV Ch 111 & StarHub TV Ch 203)
Noel Gallagher speaks for many Manchester City supporters when he emphasises their strange relationship with the Champions League.
He's not really bothered.
The former Oasis rocker and omnipresent City fan and commentator has long expressed his belief that the Sky Blues rarely look beyond domestic silverware.
England is the limit of their horizons.
Pep Guardiola is tasked with changing that mindset against Borussia Monchengladbach tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
It won't be easy. When it comes to Europe, his employers are slightly at odds with their own supporters.
Knocking Manchester United off their perch represents the height of the average City fan's ambition, but that's not enough for the Abu Dhabi owners.
Continental control is necessary to achieve global PR and marketing domination and that meant hiring a manager with an equally insatiable hunger for Champions League success.
It meant Guardiola.
His first six competitive games in charge, all victories, all offering teasing glimpses of the Spaniard's dazzling attacking mantra, still feel like a prologue.
In some ways, Guardiola's work begins now, before impatient owners eyeing the European throne and supporters eyeing the next game against Bournemouth.
He's got to make fans care about life on the continent.
City's strained relationship with the Champions League is at odds with their neighbours because they don't really have one.
There's no European history at the Etihad, just a series of early exits and occasional slaps on the wrist.
Roberto Mancini failed to get out of the group stages twice. Pellegrini reached the knockout rounds three times in a row, but fell to Barcelona on two occasions.
The bumpkin billionaires developed a reputation for being second-tier superstars unable to compete with authentic thoroughbreds.
Along the way, City fell foul of the financial fair play regulations and their black players suffered racial abuse.
For City's owners, European streets were not paved with gold, but long lines of obstacles that bruised the brand and hurt the bank balance.
They needed the manager with the medals.
Guardiola's winning streak in the EPL has captured the imagination, but it's still a trial run for the Champions League.
Against West Ham for an hour and Manchester United in the first half, he was essentially considering pieces for a jigsaw he hadn't opened yet.
The high defensive line and the insistence on playing from the back through John Stones and Claudio Bravo, no matter how dangerous the endeavour, are classic hallmarks of Guardiola's most accomplished sides in Europe.
His formation, always fluid, always moving, like running water spilling through cracks in a floorboard, veers between 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1, but the end goal is usually the same.
Retain possession and free David Silva and the outstanding Kevin de Bruyne to wreak havoc. They flip positions, cut inside, pull back and link lines, always with the explicit intention of stretching fullbacks.
They are being carefully calibrated for an assault on Europe.
Sergio Aguero's return is an added bonus, but the overriding principle prevailed even in his absence at Old Trafford.
Keep the ball. Move it quickly. Cause death by a thousand passes.
Leicester's "sit and soak" counter-attacking heroics last season challenged the validity of those endless possession percentages, but Guardiola takes a different view.
Why must a possession-based game and a dizzying, pressing game be mutually exclusive? Why not try both? Why not keep the ball and still counter quickly?
At Old Trafford in the first half, dazed and confused Red Devils found themselves buffeted by waves of City attacks, but did nothing about it because they couldn't get a foot on the ball.
Guardiola's underlying motive appears obvious. The Premier League is a shiny stepping-stone on the way to Champions League glory.
It's certainly a risky business and one that exposes glaring weaknesses.
The Manchester derby revealed ageing fullbacks not quite able to deal with the relentless workload and a goalkeeper who flaps like a performing seal demanding a fish.
Guardiola's overhaul remains a work in progress.
So his immediate goal against Monchengladbach is to convince a sceptical fan base that their club can at least establish a firm footing in Europe this time around.
Guardiola is a brand name in the Champions League. Manchester City are not. Only the Spaniard can change that.
5 reasons Man city Can win Champions League
1 They've got Guardiola
City finally landed Guardiola after assiduously courting him over four years and the club's fans have been unable to contain their glee.
He already has his own chant - "'Cause we've got (clap, clap) Guardiola!" to the tune of Glad All Over by the Dave Clark Five - and City's fans (above) sang it long and loud after Saturday's 2-1 derby win at Manchester United.
Guardiola's chief mission is to bring the Premier League title back to the Etihad, but he is also expected to take City to the next level in Europe.
He won two Champions League titles in four years with Barcelona and will be desperate to make his mark on the competition again after three successive semi-final exits with Bayern Munich.
2 They're England's form team
Guardiola did his best to temper expectations after City's derby win, but there has been no disguising their impressive form over the first month of his tenure.
They have won their first four Premier League games - beating Sunderland (2-1), Stoke City (4-1), West Ham United (3-1) and Manchester United (2-1) - and crushed Steaua Bucharest 6-0 on aggregate in the Champions League play-off round.
Some of their football, particularly in the first half against United with Kevin de Bruyne (above) on song, has been sparkling.
3 They broke new ground last season
The lavish investment made by City's majority owner Sheikh Mansour has yielded two Premier League titles, two League Cups and one FA Cup, but it is in Europe that he truly desires to see the team succeed.
Before last season, City had never gone beyond the Champions League last 16, but in an unexpected flourish under outgoing manager Manuel Pellegrini, they made it to the semi-finals.
City overcame a dangerous Paris Saint-Germain side in the quarter-finals and narrowly lost 1-0 on aggregate to eventual champions Real Madrid in the last four.
Previously seen as callow continental campaigners, City now know what it takes to win knockout-phase matches against elite opponents.
4 They have a team full of match-winners
Guardiola inherited a squad packed with creative talent in the shape of David Silva, de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero, which has been supplemented by the signings of Nolito and Leroy Sane.
Their 17 goals this season have been scored by eight different players, plus one own goal.
Aguero (above) already has six and, when suspension ruled him out of the derby, de Bruyne and Kelechi Iheanacho stepped up to the plate with a goal apiece.
Nolito has settled quickly following his move from Celta Vigo, while Sterling appears reborn and was named the Premier League's Player of the Month for August.
5 They will be battle-hardened
The Champions League group-stage draw used to hold all kinds of fears for City, who failed to make it past the first hurdle in their first two seasons in the competition.
But they won their group last season, finishing above Juventus, the previous campaign's beaten finalists, eventual Europa League champions Sevilla and Moenchengladbach.
This season's group also features Barcelona - Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar and the rest - and Scottish champions Celtic.
Barcelona will provide a stern test and the matches against Celtic, under former Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers (above), are likely to be stormy affairs, but should City emerge from the group, they will already be on their mettle.- AFP.