When the most exciting game of the 2017-18 Champions League group stage kicks off Tuesday night in Manchester, Pep Guardiola will be patrolling one touchline.
He’ll have an up-close view of a showdown between the two hottest teams in Europe. But if he didn’t? If he were instead planning to spend the evening in his luxury city-center flat?
He’d be on his sofa watching the exact same game. Because he’s in love with Manchester City’s Tuesday opponent, Napoli.
“I like to watch football,” Guardiola said Monday. “And I like to watch Napoli when I am sat in my home.”
Guardiola has sung the praises of Napoli over the past three days, and his words haven’t just been respectful, mundane overtures to distract from a hostile battle on the horizon. They seem to carry a genuine admiration for a team that deserves every speck of it.
“I don’t need to compliment them,” he said. “They are a great team. They can build actions really well, they are able to push forward. … They do many, many things, and the things they do they do perfectly.
“Tomorrow when we are on the pitch we will both try to attack, both teams will want to keep the ball and score as many as possible. I think when you have two teams that want to play in this way you get a really interesting match.”
Guardiola’s City has been the toast of England for a month-and-a-half now. The Premier League leaders have scored four goals per game since the beginning of September in all competitions, and haven’t dropped points. They smashed Stoke 7-2 on Saturday.
But if they have a long-lost twin in continental Europe, it’s Napoli. The Serie A leaders are the only top-flight club in Europe – from the Premier League to the Swiss Super League to the Northern Irish Premiership – with a perfect league record. They’ve won eight in eight with 26 goals for and just five against. They triumphed 4-1 at Lazio, and stayed atop the table with an away defeat of Roma this past weekend.
But Pep isn’t in love with them simply because they’re winning. He’s in love with them because they play soccer the way he believes it should be played – indeed, the way he and Manchester City play it. And that’s what makes Tuesday’s clash so fascinating. Napoli won’t just push City; it’ll do so by emulating the style that has made City so formidable.
Ever since Maurizio Sarri replaced Rafa Benitez ahead of the 2015-16 season, Napoli has played some of the most attractive soccer in the world. Like City, it maintains possession well. Like City, it retrieves possession well. Like City, it can string together dynamic, up-tempo attacks at the flip of a switch.
The teams aren’t tactical equals, and their detailed systems differ in various ways, starting with City’s ever-evolving shape. But their overall approaches to the game are similar. Both invite pressure by building from the back. Both set themselves up to exploit that pressure, pass through it, and go to goal. Both have the ability to play at a ridiculously high pace in the attacking half after breaking the press, or on the counter immediately after winning possession. And both will hunt for the ball high up the field when they don’t have it.
Furthermore, neither likes to make significant opponent-based adjustments. Napoli is especially reluctant in that regard. The last time City went into a game against an up-tempo, high-pressure adversary, both it and Liverpool reined in their aggressiveness from the start. But that’s not how Napoli is programmed. Even away from home, it will likely be confrontational. It will attempt to make City uncomfortable. And Pep has hinted that he won’t shy away from the challenge, nor should he.
So what will give? When one team invites high pressure and the other emphatically obliges, one of the two will come away with possession in the attacking half. And end-to-end match should result. But who will win the majority of those battles?
Napoli has the quality to neutralize City, and maybe even put the Citizens on the back foot. Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens have the pace and skill to ravage an occasionally shaky City back line. The midfield three of Jorginho, Allan and Marek Hamsik won’t be overmatched.
But Napoli also has the eagerness that City habitually turns into naivety. It has cause for confidence, but confidence can morph into over-confidence throughout 90 minutes at the Etihad.
Either way, Tuesday should be great fun. Real Madrid-Tottenham at the Bernabeu will be the spectacle. But Man City-Napoli has all the makings of the most thrilling match of the group stage. Premier League fans have fallen in love with City’s style. Now they get the opportunity to see what Pep’s affection for one of his opponents is all about.
“I love many, many things about a Sarri team,” Guardiola said. “Tuesday is a big test. Hopefully those who watch it will enjoy it.”
Source: Henry Bushnell| Yahoo