Clownio Bravo undermining Pep
IT REALLY could not have gone much worse. In a week when his nemesis reclaims a bit of his mojo, Pep Guardiola loses a slice of his. His second eagerly anticipated return to the Nou Camp was an embarrassing catastrophe.
If it was more like the old Mourinho at Anfield on Monday, this was neither the messiah with whom Barcelona were familiar nor the one Manchester City are banking on him being.
Not only were his side given a bad beating in the end, his tactics – especially with his keeper – raise the first serious doubts whether he is all he is cracked up to be. And this just as City announce that he would be leading them into “a new phase”.
To be fair, City were still in the game up to the 53rd minute thanks mainly to Guardiola’s controversial decision to pack his midfield and leave Sergio Aguero on the bench.
They had kept a slightly off-colour Barca’s possession down to manageable proportions and were only behind because of a slip by Fernandinho. Had John Stones not missed a gift of a header they could have been level.
But the game turned on another cock-up by Claudio Bravo. First his rush out of goal was totally unnecessary - like an over-eager parking warden trying to issue a ticket before the car is driven away.
Next was the mess he made of his attempted pass and then came the brain freeze when he handled Luis Suarez’s goal-bound lob while several kilometers outside his area.
It ensured that the Chilean’s reputation as a clown is now cast in stone, inviting even more ridicule from fans and exploitation by opponents. The consequences for an already-creaking defence don’t bare thinking about.
Indeed, it is hard to escape the feeling that Guardiola’s insistence on having his keeper play like an attacking midfielder does not underpin his philosophy, it risks undermining it. But after the match, he was defiantly maintaining that he would persist with the tactic “until my last match as a coach.”
The arrival of Bravo and the simultaneous expulsion of Joe Hart had already raised eyebrows among fans who, almost to a man, had been ecstatic the blue half of Manchester had acquired the most coveted coach in football. Yes, Hart had lost form last season and was a liability for England in the Euros. And, no, he wasn’t great with his feet. But on the evidence we’ve seen so far, Bravo isn’t any better. Manchester City goalkeeper Claudio Bravo (left) blocks a shot by Barcelona forward Luis Suarez with his hands outside the box resulting in him being sent off (insert) during the Champions League Group C match at the Nou Camp in Barcelona yesterday. Barcelona forward Lionel Messi (2nd left) scores a goal after a mistake by Manchester Citys defender John Stones (right) during the Champions League match at the Camp Nou Stadium in Barcelona yesterday.
The touch that led to his sending off yesterday (as well as the one that should have led to a sending off against Wayne Rooney) suggests that, like Hart, he’s a long way from being Fred Astaire.
Nor is he any great shakes in the air. It was his flap that allowed United back into the Manchester derby and why, when crosses come in, City fans’ blood pressure readings resemble the cricket scores.
It is Sod’s Law for Pep that this circus act has coincided with Hart rediscovering his best form for Torino. Indeed before the horror show in the Nou Camp, there was already a cry for the onloan England man to be brought back; after this display, it will become deafening.
It is not prehistoric to suggest that the prime purpose of a keeper is to keep the ball out of the net. But it is also undeniable that a capable sweeper-keeper can bring great benefits.
Having the glove man come out to the edge of the penalty area to pick up a pass and immediately start an attack with one himself is an integral part of the modern pressing game – as long as it’s safe to do so.
The previous night, two of the top exponents of the art, Hugo Lloris of Spurs and Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel, took no risks in moonlighting outside their area, and both produced sensational world class saves to keep clean sheets with their day job.
The Nou Camp - and especially Lionel Messi – would have been mystified by the England keeper’s absence after his heroics there in recent seasons.
On what we’ve seen so far, even with Hart’s slip-ups in France, you’d say he was the better option – by the distance Bravo was out of his goal.
Worryingly for City, it is not just the keeper whom Pep has encouraged to find a man with the first pass out of defence – Stones is another who seems to want to emulate Andres Iniesta even when surrounded by opponents on the edge of the box.
It may be blasphemy to Pep’s ears, but there are times, even for the finest defenders, when Row Z is the only option.
Now Pep and the whole club badly need a win at home to Southampton on Sunday before they visit United in the League Cup next Wednesday when Mourinho will be primed for revenge.
Then it’s West Brom before Barca come to Manchester.
These clashes are regarded as yardsticks by which the City head honchos - mostly Catalans themselves - measure their progress in relation to the club they aspire to emulate. Financially they may be making progress but on the field, according to Gary Neville, “City are nowhere near.”
Pep has a bigger job than perhaps his bosses, the fans and even he realised, and his goalkeeper isn’t helping. Is Pep that great? Yes, I think he is, but as someone once said: “It takes a real man to admit his mistakes but an even better one to make things right.”