HOW do the football gods deliver things like this?
Manchester City, the bastions of beautiful football in the Premier League this season, have the potential to win the competition against Manchester United in a local derby between No.1 and No.2.
The extraordinary timing is as symbolic as it is theatrical, especially as Guardiola’s City, now on 81 points, chase Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea record haul of 95 points in 2004-2005 with eight games to play.
MANCHESTER CITY – THE PERFECT TEAM
Wembley StadiumMar 16 201811:00PM AESTVisit Match Centre
King Power StadiumMar 17 201811:00PM AESTVisit Match Centre
Mar 17 201811:00PM AESTVisit Match Centre
Liberty StadiumMar 17 201811:00PM AESTVisit Match Centre
bet365 StadiumMar 18 20182:00AM AEST
Kirklees StadiumMar 18 20182:00AM AEST
Vitality StadiumMar 18 20182:00AM AEST
Mar 18 20184:30AM AEST
Etihad StadiumMar 18 201811:00PM AESTVisit Match Centre
Olympic StadiumMar 18 201811:00PM AESTVisit Match Centre
The old adage used to be: can you do it on a wet, windy night at Stoke?
Stoke couldn’t, this week. But David Silva, 32, certainly could.
For all the talk of how Pep Guardiola has improved some of the fringe players in the squad, veteran Silva has flourished as much as anyone, despite meaning to enter his twilight seasons.
He can roll his sleeves up, is a mercurial talent and has formed a combination with Kevin De Bruyne to die for. Guardiola has tailored his formation to suit the talents at his disposal and City fans have reaped the benefits. All this, while allowing Silva to return home regularly to be with his family as they get through the premature birth of his child.
After the win at Stoke, pundit Gary Neville told Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football: “I don’t buy into the theory that it’s the greatest team of all time because ultimately I think you have to do a lot more.
“You have to win multiple leagues and Champions Leagues as a team and it’s very early in this Pep Guardiola reign.
“But what I would say is it’s the best team I’ve seen in terms of their attacking shape being the best defensive shape.
“They are absolutely perfect when they attack, which means they are perfect when they defend.
“Their attacking positions are such that when they back up play they are in a shape whereby they can sustain every single attack.
“They don’t come out of shape. They are brilliant in their attacking, but also they are brilliant in their defending off the back of their attacking.
“They are the best I’ve seen in terms of their organisation, it really is wonderful to watch – and it is clockwork.”
He’s achieved it, too, by giving De Bruyne and Silva such glorious free reign in the middle of the park to the point they complement each other and are almost impossible to stifle.
Fernandinho’s role shielding them is immense, as is the organisation of a versatile backline, with fullbacks providing an extra layer of protection for Fernandinho where necessary.
The second goal against Stoke was testament to how diligent they are without the ball and how that facet of their game cannot be understated. The hosts turned the ball over under rampant pressure high up the park from City, who countered with breakneck and precision.
Their opener highlighted another great string to their bow: the intuitive combination play, which becomes almost unstoppable when a Raheem Sterling or Leroy Sane links down the flanks. This time, Sterling accelerated down the right and found Silva, arriving like clockwork from a late midfield run.
They can graft, too, though.
It’s the first time they’ve achieved the double over Stoke since the turn of the century.
THE ULTIMATE JOSE LITMUS TEST
Hypothetical: how would David Silva go if he was playing under Mourinho at United?
United will not achieve their results with the same panache – that much is obvious, and has been ruthlessly dissected.
But you could not have a tie poised more typically for Mourinho as Wednesday’s home Champions League leg against Sevilla, level at 0-0.
A blasphemous approach, if you asked Guardiola, has United in pole position to get the job done at home against the La Liga outfit after Mourinho decided to go to Spain to kill the game in the first leg.
Guardiola would have gone to take the ascendancy, but Mourinho, laced with as many world class players, did not – despite the fact Sevila have lost to Valencia and Alaves in 2018 and shipped five goals at Eibar, and at home to Atletico Madrid and Real Betis.
He also focuses more on the weaknesses of others, and while it will mean that United have to live with the reality of City’s sophistication and next level on the football pecking order, you have to concede he is executing that dogma perfectly at the moment.
No wonder he is in a relatively buoyant move.
Jesse Lingard’s cameo against Chelsea turned the game in United’s favour in a 2-1 win; with disaster looming 2-0 down at Crystal Palace he brought on Marcus Rashford at the break, and then pushing for the winner, changed shape to seal a 3-2 win. Then against Liverpool, after being smashed for his defensive approach at Anfield, he was still cagey, but directly targeted Trent Alexander-Arnold with the pace of Rashford, playing off the havoc Romelu Lukaku was causing for Liverpool’s vulnerable centre-backs. That worked too.
Antonio Conte, tick. Jurgen Klopp, tick.
That brings us to Sevilla.
At 0-0, United are vulnerable to away goals but Mourinho will back his side to continue their momentum.
“The first leg leaves everything open for tomorrow,” added Mourinho. “I don’t feel we have any advantage in this moment. We are going to try to show we are better but I don’t feel we have any advantage.”
Sevilla boss Vincenzo Montella added: “Mourinho is not used to losing games at home, so I would settle for a 1-1.
“It is a special game because it would be a very important step for the club. We’ve only been there once before and that was 60 years ago.” T
It’s not how Guardiola would play it, but it could get United into Europe’s final eight. If it doesn’t, expect criticism as brutal as it can be for the approach in Spain.
A run in Europe is probably the only consolation to the galling prospect of literally, and symbolically, ceding Manchester bragging rights once again.
Premier League|FOX SPORTS