Pep Guardiola on brink of emulating his hero Johan Cruyff if Manchester City maintain winning momentum

Catalonian manager edging closer to record of old Barcelona mentor

For the manager of Manchester City, an exhilarating tunnel of successive wins is about to turn into a hall of mirrors.

If City keep extending the run of 21 victories, the latest the 4-1 defeat of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Pep Guardiola will glimpse reflections of his past at every milestone.

Win Sunday’s derby and Guardiola will not only inflict a decisive wound on Manchester United’s dwindling Premier League title hopes, but also dent the pride of an eternal rival.

Twenty-two successive triumphs is a modern landmark set by Real Madrid in 2014-15 and, until last year, represented the best run of a club in the top five European leagues. Anything that eclipses a Madrid achievement has a special resonance for a born-and-bred Barcelonista like Guardiola.

Should City follow up three points at home to United with another three against Southampton, Guardiola, formerly manager at Bayern Munich, will draw level with a Bayern milestone – the 23 wins the German Treble-winners compiled in 2019-20. Also on the horizon are longer-standing records associated with two major influences on Guardiola’s career, Louis Van Gaal and Johan Cruyff.

Guardiola says he pays little attention to records that do not come accompanied with trophies, but, speaking ahead of the victory over Wolves, he namechecked Madrid’s famous run. It was built by a Real who then held the European Cup, having brushed aside Guardiola’s Bayern brutally – 5-0 on aggregate in the semi-final – on the way to that prize.

The following season the Madrid machine, guided by Carlo Ancelotti, clicked into top gear as they began the defence of their European prize, with a 5-1 win against Basel; 22 victories later, they were lifting the Club World Cup.

There are points of comparison with City’s current dominance. Madrid had actually made a very poor start to 2014-15, winning just one and losing three of their first five domestic matches.

Surreal though it now seems, Guardiola’s English champions-elect are bouncing back from City’s worst start to a league season for 12 years. Like Madrid six years ago, City are confronting a condensed calendar.

As European champions and Copa del Rey holders, Ancelotti’s squad had the extra commitment of two Super Cups and the Club World Cup. City, still in both domestic Cups and the Champions League, are tackling a packed fixture list because the pandemic delayed the start to the season.

Ancelotti’s Madrid squad, like City’s, had enviable options across the attacking and creative positions. Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez, stars of the 2014 World Cup, had just joined. There was the so-called ‘BBC’ up front, B for [Gareth] Bale, B for [Karim] Benzema, C for Cristiano [Ronaldo].

But here’s the striking distinction between Ancelotti’s unstoppables and Guardiola’s juggernaut – the role of the spearhead striker. Ronaldo scored 28 times in those 22 matches, “a huge advantage for us,” Ancelotti acknowledged.

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The most potent goalscorer in City’s squad, Sergio Aguero, has scarcely featured because of injury and illness since City drew against West Bromwich Albion in December. He has no goals in the 21-match sequence in which 15 different City players have registered on the scoresheet.

Bayern’s win rush of last season, had a top-of-his-form Robert Lewadowski leading the line. The Pole struck 21 goals in the 23 victories. City’s leading scorer in the last 21 matches? Ilkay Gundogan, with 10, a midfielder who has spent much of his career at the club as the deepest-lying player of the front six.

Aguero, who made his first start of 2021 against West Ham United last weekend, should have an opportunity to get among the goals soon, with City about to be in action four times in ten days.

If they win all those fixtures, they will match Ajax’s 25-game chain of victories in 1995. Van Gaal’s celebrated young Ajax won the Champions League within that run. The eventual reward for the Dutch coach was a move to Barcelona, where Guardiola was captain.

Van Gaal’s 25 wins fell one shot of establishing an Ajax record, set by the European champions of 1971-72, their figurehead the brilliant Cruyff. Ajax’s ‘Total Football’ 26-victory sequence is the long-standing high bar for elite, top-division European football.

If City overtake it, it will resonate with City’s manager because of Cruyff, who as a coach launched Guardiola’s senior playing career at Barcelona and schooled him in many of his core principles.

Cruyff used to warn that winning momentum, however sustained, can seem very brittle when it stalls. Take the record-setting Real Madrid of 2014-15. They ended that season second in La Liga, dethroned in Europe, out of the domestic Cup before the quarters, and with Ancelotti sacked.

Published: March 4, 2021 06:52 AM

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