Guardi­ola tells ram­pant City to be­ware as win­ter closes in

Man­ager knows key pe­riod awaits his ti­tle con­tenders City’s last two sea­sons have gone cold come Novem­ber

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Sport | Football - James Ducker NORTH­ERN FOOT­BALL COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Pep Guardi­ola had no sooner fin­ished field­ing ques­tions on Fri­day about the prospect of his Manch­ester City team em­u­lat­ing Arse­nal’s “In­vin­ci­bles” by go­ing un­beaten this sea­son than the man­ager was be­ing asked whether they could fol­low in Manch­ester United’s foot­steps by win­ning the tre­ble.

Af­ter 15 wins in 16 matches, dur­ing which time City have plun­dered 49 goals and been cred­ited in some quar­ters with el­e­vat­ing the game to heights sel­dom seen on these shores, ex­pec­ta­tions are mush­room­ing by the week. Arse­nal visit the Eti­had Sta­dium this af­ter­noon with few giv­ing Arsene Wenger’s side much chance of halt­ing City’s 14-game win­ning streak.

In­su­lat­ing play­ers from that sort of hype is not easy, but if Guardi­ola has been keen to guard against com­pla­cency, it would be lit­tle sur­prise if the Cata­lan has been busy re­mind­ing his squad about what hap­pened in the pre­vi­ous two sea­sons af­ter a largely ram­pant Au­gust, Sep­tem­ber and Oc­to­ber.

On both oc­ca­sions, City, as they are now, were sit­ting pretty at the top of the ta­ble go­ing into the first Premier League game of Novem­ber. Un­der Guardi­ola last term, City had won seven of 10 games and were av­er­ag­ing 2.3 points per match. It had been much the same the pre­vi­ous year in Manuel Pel­le­grini’s fi­nal sea­son in charge. City were av­er­ag­ing 2.27 points per game af­ter eight wins in their open­ing 11 league fix­tures.

And then the clocks went back­wards and City went the same way on the pitch. Last sea­son, Novem­ber, De­cem­ber and Jan­uary yielded just 20 points from 12 games at an av­er­age of 1.66 points per match, a sharp de­cline that saw City drop from first to fifth in the ta­ble. The pre­vi­ous sea­son, they mus­tered an av­er­age of just 1.58 points over that three-month pe­riod, slipped to sec­ond, and never re­claimed top spot, ul­ti­mately fin­ish­ing a dis­tant fourth.

So, can Guardi­ola en­sure that City avoid a third con­sec­u­tive win­ter of dis­con­tent? No one re­al­is­ti­cally ex­pects them to main­tain their cur­rent av­er­age of 2.8 points per game but pre­vent­ing the sort of marked drop-off that de­railed the pre­vi­ous two ti­tle cam­paigns will be fore­most in Guardi­ola’s mind as he steals him­self for his sec­ond English win­ter.

“I look at the win­ter months and it seems like an old cliche – can you go away to Stoke and all that sort of garbage – but there’s a lit­tle bit more to it than that,” Gary Neville, the for­mer United de­fender and Sky Sports pun­dit, said this week. “City would prob­a­bly have won the ti­tle in those two sea­sons if they’d main­tained their win­ning level. But if they drop to that level in Novem­ber, De­cem­ber and Jan­uary again then they’ll be in trou­ble.

“I don’t care what any­body says, those are the tough­est months to play foot­ball – the games, the weather, the in­juries, the stock­pile of fix­tures, the Cham­pi­ons League, the Christ­mas pe­riod. Can they get through to Fe­bru­ary, March and April when the weather gets bet­ter again and it’s an eas­ier time of the year to play foot­ball?”

So, are City bet­ter equipped this time around to deal with the prob­lems that a con­gested win­ter sched­ule in­vari­ably throws up? Hav­ing al­ready qual­i­fied for the Cham­pi­ons League knock­out stages, Guardi­ola will, for a start, have the op­tion of rest­ing play­ers for City’s fi­nal two group games if he wishes. The loss of Ser­gio Aguero to in­jury and sus­pen­sion for much of De­cem­ber last year hurt City be­cause they had no ob­vi­ous re­place­ment, es­pe­cially since new sign­ing Gabriel Je­sus was not avail­able un­til the fol­low­ing month. By con­trast, they now have an abun­dance of riches in at­tack that should al­low Guardi­ola to con­tinue ro­tat­ing and keep play­ers fresh. If there is a con­cern, it is prob­a­bly in cen­tral de­fence. Vincent Kom­pany has been side­lined since late Au­gust and an in­jury to John Stones or Ni­co­las Ota-

mendi would leave City com­pro­mised at the back, al­though Guardi­ola could en­ter the trans­fer mar­ket for at least one new de­fender in Jan­uary. Sim­i­larly, City can ill af­ford to lose right­back Kyle Walker, es­pe­cially with left-back Ben­jamin Mendy al­ready a long-term ab­sen­tee.

The cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment in­jury suf­fered by Ilkay Gun­do­gan last De­cem­ber could not have been more poorly timed, but the mid­fielder is be­ing eased back and will feel like a new sign­ing. Yaya Toure has barely fea­tured this term but his ex­pe­ri­ence could be in­valu­able at dif­fi­cult times.

Also keeper Clau­dio Bravo’s strug­gles to adapt to English foot­ball came to a head last win­ter; at one point in Jan­uary he had con­ceded six goals from six shots faced. Eder­son, City’s new No 1, has sel­dom looked flus­tered.

Guardi­ola is tak­ing noth­ing for granted, though. “Of course, we have done re­ally well but I’ve seen it be­fore,” he said. “There are still a lot of things to come. If you want the ti­tle then you have to fight in Novem­ber, in De­cem­ber, in Jan­uary as well as Fe­bru­ary, March, April, May.”

‘Win­ter is tough­est pe­riod to play foot­ball’

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