Pep Guardiola on Manchester City's spirit, Fernandinho's reinvention and why not winning the league won't be the end of the world

City trail Premier League leaders by nine points. But as the Catalan points out, you can't win all of the time

As no Liverpool fan needs reminding, they have not become champions of England since 1990. “I hope they are going to wait a year more,” said Benjamin Mendy, and if Manchester City’s aim is to turn Liverpool’s a three-decade drought into a 31-year gap, the choice of verb was instructive. It is hope rather than anticipation. While Pep Guardiola was as defiant in his rhetoric as his team had been by coming from behind to beat Chelsea 2-1, he also sought to recalibrate expectations.

“This team never gives up,” the City manager said. “Always we try but I accept that the others can be better. If we play Chelsea and Chelsea score more goals and beat us, what can we do? Congratulations, it is an incredible top team.”

Instead, City leapfrogged Chelsea courtesy of Riyad Mahrez’s stylish decider but in the bigger picture, they are not fighting the Londoners, but Liverpool. City kicked off 12 points behind Jurgen Klopp’s side. Mahrez reduced that to nine but theirs remains an uphill task.

“I know it’s far away with these numbers,” said Guardiola. “Liverpool are unstoppable.” And yet, as he underlined, even serial winners do not actually win everything. It says something for the Premier League’s competitiveness that the Catalan’s City are the only team to retain the title since Manchester United in 2009. Nor does his golfing friend, Tommy Fleetwood, win on a weekly basis. Perhaps City should not be expected to, either.

“It looks like if we won the last two Premier Leagues we have to win seven Premier Leagues in a row, you have to win 200 points every season,” Guardiola said. “It does not work [like that] at a high, high level. Tennis players lose games. In golf, Tommy Fleetwood does not always win the tournament. I would like that but it's not. Lose, lose, but [the] important [thing] is our spirit when 1-0 down, after the way we play in Anfield. That is what I want to see in my team.”

Few imbue City’s spirit or their can-do mentality quite like Fernandinho. It was entirely typical that that Brazilian conjured the goal-saving block to prevent N’Golo Kante from drawing Chelsea level at 2-2. A year ago, all-action figures would have been duelling in the midfield. Now Fernandinho has been reinvented as a stopper. His speed belies his 34 years and his capacity to anticipate danger makes him an asset at the back, even if few are reinvented so successfully as late in a footballing life.

“At Anfield, he was the best central defender we play there,” said Guardiola, annoyed that City’s defeat two weeks ago could alter perceptions of Fernandinho’s display. “He was incredible at Anfield, he was incredible today [against Chelsea]. He can play there.” He will play there, too, at least for as long as Aymeric Laporte remains sidelined. Fernandinho will not revert to midfield. “If Rodri and Gundo [Ilkay Gundogan] are fit, I don't think so.”

Fitness concerns have been a constant in the campaign, however. While Rodri and David Silva ought to be back soon after making premature departures, Sergio Aguero represents more of a worry. A muscle injury has the potential to sideline City’s record scorer for December’s Manchester derby and clashes with Arsenal and Leicester City.

It presents a problem, but the solution for Guardiola will be simple. “Gabriel [Jesus] is our option,” said Guardiola. “Of course, [Raheem] Sterling can play in that position but Gabriel is going to play there, sure. Gabriel has made one of the best starts of this season.” The Brazilian has not actually scored at the Etihad since March, though that reflects the reality the majority of his opportunities have come on the road.

Two seasons when City often prevailed without Mendy and a year when Kevin de Bruyne was a bit-part player and they still did a domestic clean sweep offer encouragement. So, too, the fact they retrieved a deficit to overhaul Liverpool last season.

“In November I’m not thinking to win the Premier League,” Guardiola said, aware it is not a disaster if they do not. “It's not the first time I think Manchester City in 100 years of history lose the league. If we don’t do it, I'm not going to retire but I'm going to be disappointed.”

Published: November 25, 2019 06:00 AM

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