By Ian Chadband
(Reuters) – After Manchester City continued their seemingly unstoppable Premier League rampage on Wednesday, manager Pep Guardiola was left trying to calm the growing hype by suggesting his old Barcelona charges still remain Europe’s team to beat.
Even though City were wasteful and a mite distracted in their 1-0 win at Newcastle United, the fact that they still chalked up a record-extending 18th successive Premier League win with some comfort still told of their relentless excellence.
So, as Guardiola reflected on a 15-point lead at the top of the table, it was little surprise that he was asked afterwards whether City now had to be considered favourites for the Champions League as Europe’s mesmerising form side.
“Who does (Lionel) Messi play for?” was Guardiola’s response.
“Barcelona,” came the reporter’s answer.
“So they’re the favourites,” shrugged the manager.
Guardiola should know. As the man who oversaw Messi’s flowering at the Nou Camp during a triumphant reign, he was once so enraptured on the touchline, he turned to a fan, saying: “If it wasn’t for him, I’d be coaching in La Segunda (the second division of La Liga).”
Yet his City side continue to play such a dazzling brand of football that many observers feel they now look equipped to take the mantle of the continent’s pass-and-move masters.
The compliments showering him and his team seem to have only made Guardiola keener to ignore all the swooning from the rest of English football.
Even his compatriot Rafa Benitez seemed so awe-struck by Guardiola’s creation that he set up his Newcastle side with an approach of startling negativity until a Raheem Sterling goal after half an hour of incessant City pressure demanded a change.
“We did absolutely everything but it is difficult to play when the other team doesn’t want to play,” sighed Guardiola in what seemed an accurate description of much of the one-sided fare.
Yet the fact that City only scored once and nearly surrendered a late equaliser despite hitting the woodwork three times, enjoying 78 percent possession and having 21 shots to Newcastle’s six, demonstrated to Guardiola that hard graft still lies ahead.
If there are any concerns for him, they surely lie in the continuing problems he has with the fitness of his central defenders.
Once again, the injury-plagued captain Vincent Kompany limped off after minutes with an apparent recurrence of his persistent calf problems.
“I don’t know,” Guardiola said, when asked about the severity of the latest injury. “I don’t know what is going to happen. Unfortunately he is injured again like the last three years.
“We are going to see how long it will be before he is ready.”
With another key central defender John Stones injured, Guardiola is expected to be shopping for quality back-up in the January transfer window although Liverpool’s signing of Virgil van Dijk on Wednesday may have scuppered his number one hope.
(Reporting by Ian Chadband; Editing by Rex Gowar)