Watch out Madrid and PSG! Man City send out a message to Europe with Basel battering

Pep Guardiola insisted on Monday he had no idea whether Europe’s grandest clubs would be worried about Manchester City in the Champions League this season. If they were not before, surely they will be now.

Ok, so everybody expected City to coast through against Basel, and all the evidence suggests that is exactly what they will do following a 4-0 first-leg win in Switzerland.

It is hard to argue that this game was trickier than most people gave credit for, given the emphatic scoreline, but Basel have beaten Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Manchester United twice at St Jakob Park in recent years, and only lost narrowly to Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain. 

In fact, they had won four of their five Champions League home games against English opposition. Throw in the fact that City had won just one of their six knock-out ties, and that even Guardiola has a poor away record in his knockout ties (just four wins from 22), it does highlight that this was not necessarily a walkover, and that it would take a special effort to win comfortably.

Of course, City are a special team. Even if you believe this game was barely a test of their quality at the top level, and that they should have won comfortably anyway, it surely serves as proof, if nothing else, that they are living up to lofty expectations.

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Should they complete the job and qualify for the quarter-finals they will certainly face better sides further down the line, but even Europe’s most established super powers will be eager to avoid Guardiola’s side.

“I don’t know, really I don’t,” the Catalan stressed at his pre-match press conference when asked if the likes of Real Madrid will fear the Blues. “I don’t know if we are ready, I have a lot of confidence in the guys but this competion is special. Our target is to do better than last season, the quarter-finals would be better, and after that we’ll see.”

It looks very likely that we will soon see. The Premier League leaders did still have their shaky moments, particularly at the back, and particularly in the opening exchanges. Vincent Kompany was a surprise inclusion, given John Stones and Aymeric Laporte are both above him in Guardiola’s pecking order, and he looked particularly vulnerable as Basel surged forward on the counter-attack several times in the first 15 minutes.

Ilkay Gundogan Manchester City

Manchester City

Bernardo Silva Manchester City

Of course, City are a special team. Even if you believe this game was barely a test of their quality at the top level, and that they should have won comfortably anyway, it surely serves as proof, if nothing else, that they are living up to lofty expectations.

Should they complete the job and qualify for the quarter-finals they will certainly face better sides further down the line, but even Europe’s most established super powers will be eager to avoid Guardiola’s side.

“I don’t know, really I don’t,” the Catalan stressed at his pre-match press conference when asked if the likes of Real Madrid will fear the Blues. “I don’t know if we are ready, I have a lot of confidence in the guys but this competion is special. Our target is to do better than last season, the quarter-finals would be better, and after that we’ll see.”

It looks very likely that we will soon see. The Premier League leaders did still have their shaky moments, particularly at the back, and particularly in the opening exchanges. Vincent Kompany was a surprise inclusion, given John Stones and Aymeric Laporte are both above him in Guardiola’s pecking order, and he looked particularly vulnerable as Basel surged forward on the counter-attack several times in the first 15 minutes.

Yet it was Nicolas Otamendi who was most obviously caught out with the game still goalless; the Argentine bodychecked Dimitri Oberlin in the area but the referee decided against awarding a penalty.

From there, City barely looked back. They have enough ways of scoring goals so when Ilkay Gundogan heads in a corner you know you’re in for a tough night. Sure enough, Bernardo Silva looped in a fine dipping effort and Sergio Aguero, full of confidence from his blockbuster fourth goal against Leicester City at the weekend, let fly from range and found the bottom corner.

There were a couple of shaky moments at the back for the rest of the first half but, like Basel’s earlier forays, they were quickly forgotten when Gundogan found the net again. This time a sublime curling effort from outside the area.

That was the signal for Leroy Sane, returning from an ankle injury ahead of schedule, to get ready for action. With him fit, City have even more weapons. And David Silva didn’t come on until past the hour mark, either.

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Guardiola was still not completely happy, however; the way he slapped his hands on his thighs on numerous occasions throughout the match suggested his men were actually on the end of a heavy beating. The performance may not have been perfect but those standards will ensure there is no slacking from here on out.

If City can push on through March they can be crowned Premier League champions in early April. That would afford them the opportunity to rest their star men for big games in the FA Cup and, more importantly, the Champions League.

The thought of this group of players with fresh legs and focused minds heading into the latter stages of the season is a scary thought for any team they will face, no matter who they are.

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Crunch time for De Bruyne & Neymar in race for Ballon d’Or

Pep Guardiola never misses an opportunity to remind everybody that, in his opinion, Lionel Messi is by far the best player in the world.

Ask the Manchester City manager how anybody else compares to the Argentine and you will be told that there isn’t a comparison at all. 

Mohamed Salah and Kylian Mbappe are among the players to have been likened to Messi recently, but Guardiola isn’t having it.

“Nobody can sit at the same table as Messi,” he began when asked about Mbappe, who he actually tried to sign. And on Salah: “I respect him a lot, but I’ll help him by telling him to try to avoid being compared with the other guy.”

Sometimes Guardiola brings Messi into the argument himself, like when he was asked about Kevin De Bruyne’s chances of winning the Ballon d’Or in September 2016: “He is one of the best players I have worked with. Messi is on his own at the table, but Kevin is in the next table and he is right up there.”

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After Christmas he was asked if City are favourites for the Champions League this season . “Who does Messi play for?” he countered. “So Barcelona are the favourites.”

You get the point; Guardiola likes Messi (and tables).

So you’d have been forgiven for assuming what was coming when Guardiola was asked on Saturday whether De Bruyne can win the Ballon d’Or this time.

“No doubt,” he asserted. “It is not one game, it’s the whole season, every three days playing that way. Every three games. The way he played, it’s difficult to find one in Europe.”

Kevin de Bruyne quote

For Guardiola to allude to others in Europe but not mention Messi tells you everything you need to know about how highly he rates De Bruyne. He thinks he’s right up there.

And for good reason. As the Catalan noted, De Bruyne has been pulling the strings for City all season. He has been the best player at the best club in Europe.

The assist statistic is not always an accurate measure of a player’s influence, but given De Bruyne has developed a knack of delivering the most precise deliveries from seemingly anywhere on the pitch it is fair to say he is as creative as the numbers suggest.

Look at the first two of his three assists against Leicester on Saturday and then consider this Opta statistic: since his Werder Bremen debut in August 2012, he has provided 77 assists in Europe’s big 5 leagues, more than any other player in that time. That’s one more than Messi.

Even so, statistics do not do him justice. There are moments of magic that cannot be conveyed by numbers that put him among the very best and separate him from the stat-padders. The energy (300km covered in the league alone), the touches, the technique, the precision. 

Like Messi. It’s important to read he has scored 27 goals and made 14 assists this season, but it’s even better to see him doing it. 

But when it comes to the Ballon d’Or, what matters most is  when  you do it. Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have delivered on the biggest stages for over a decade now. De Bruyne, just like Neymar and any of the challengers, will need to show his best in the next few months.

“He knows and everyone knows to be there you have to win titles, and titles and titles,” Guardiola added on Saturday. “Especially one.”

He means the Champions League. “You have to be there in the latter stages. Without the latter stages you will not be nominated.”

The World Cup will be an extra consideration this year, though it’s hard to argue it will be decisive given Messi and Ronaldo have been crowned the world’s best individuals without playing for the world’s best nations in 2010 and 2014.

And City will surely fancy their chances in the Champions League, especially as they face Basel on Tuesday. That tie will hardly define De Bruyne’s season, and indeed should present him with further opportunities to shine.

Kevin de Bruyne quote

Things will not be so straightforward for the other new pretender to Messi and Ronaldo’s throne, however.

Neymar received plenty of criticism for making the move to Paris Saint-Germain, but while many have suggested he took the easy option by moving out of Messi’s shadow (and for earning €36.8m a year to do so), it should not be forgotten that he has been tasked with delivering European glory to a club that has not been in the conversation since Carlo Ancelotti’s side ran Barca close four years ago.

The Brazilian is living up to the hype , it must be said. Like De Bruyne he is the driving force behind one of Europe’s newer super powers, and like De Bruyne his stats are up there with the best around, but the fact that fans across France are flocking to see him proves that he has the extra quality you need to be the best.

How he fares against Real Madrid, in his mini-battle with Ronaldo, will have a major impact on how his first season in France is evaluated.

You get the feeling that Neymar, like Ronaldo, is driven by a desire to win the Ballon d’Or, which will ramp up the pressure on both men.

It does not seem that De Bruyne will be burdened by that kind of thinking – even if his agent has ensured he’ll be paid an extra £600,000 per year for being named the world’s best.

“I do everything to win titles with the team,” he told reporters at the weekend. “What happens after is an extra. I am very pleased with the way everything is going for me. I am playing this way because the team is playing this way. It makes it easier for me, it makes it easier for them. At the end, if you get an individual honour it is beautiful.”

The time has come to make those performances count. While nobody can deny that De Bruyne, Neymar, Messi and their teams have impressed so far this season, you would not be surprised if Ronaldo turns everything on its head and leads Madrid to an unprecedented third consecutive Champions League title.

That’s the level the new contenders must now aspire to. Whether that’s enough to earn a place on Messi’s table is another matter altogether.

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VIDEO: Guardiola aims not-so-subtle dig at Gary Neville

Pep Guardiola has hit back at Gary Neville in the row over Manchester City’s substitutes, pointing out that the Sky Sports pundit “was a manager – for a short time”.

Neville claimed Guardiola’s decision to only name six substitutes on his bench for the game at Burnley last Saturday was “a joke”, insisting the Catalan should have called up a youth-team player to make up the numbers.

Neville stressed that the City boss is “an absolutely incredible manager” doing “unbelievable work”, but that his decision “let him down”.

Guardiola said at the time that he simply did not have enough players available to name a squad of 18, and that the youth team had played the night before, meaning none of the players would have been able to travel.

The Catalan again clarified his position during his Friday press conference, and made sure he managed to fit in a dig at Neville, whose managerial experience amounts to an ill-fated three-month spell with Valencia.

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“It’s quite simple, we had a lot of injuries,” Guardiola said. “We had that day a training session at four in the afternoon. At the same time five or six of the players I could have taken had a game here.

“It was just one or two hours later and it would not have been correct to go the manager who is preparing for the game and say ‘I need one or two players to go on the bench’ when they are going to play.

“For that reason, I didn’t call him.

“This guy, the pundit, he has to know my job is serious, it’s not a joke, never is it a joke. It’s so serious.”

As another journalist took the microphone to ask the next question, Guardiola continued his riposte.

“And he should know that because he was a manager – for a short time.”

Guardiola had earlier stressed that he would name a full squad of 18 for Saturday’s game against Leicester City, and that “Gary Neville can be happy”.

He also explained himself even further after his jibe at Neville.

“It was the first time in my life but all of the players were injured believe me,” Guardiola said. “David [Silva] was not [available], John Stones was not fit. David trained with us that day at four in the afternoon but during the session, he said, ‘I am not ready’.

“After that I went to the second team, but the second team in an hour and a half were going to play a game so I felt I’m not going to call the player to go to the bench when the substitute is normally Brahim [Diaz] or Yaya [Toure] or another one.

“That is the reason why I don’t call one up. It was the first time in my life and an exception. If the training session had been at 11 in the morning I’d have had 18 but it’s not a big issue.”

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Man City agree £44.5m deal in principle to sign Fred this summer

Manchester City have agreed a deal in principle to sign Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Fred for £44.5 million this summer, Goal understands.

City had been working to sign the 24-year-old throughout January; having initially been happy to bring him to the Etihad Stadium at the end of the season, they then stepped up their efforts midway through the month and attempted to recruit him before the winter transfer deadline.

The Blues were unable to break Shakhtar’s resolve to keep the midfielder for the remainder of their Champions League campaign, but they have been in constant talks with the Ukrainians over the past week to put together an agreement which will come into effect this summer.

It is believed that all parties have agreed on the terms of the move, although nothing is officially signed.

Former Arsenal midfielder Gilberto Silva is one of Fred’s representatives and has helped broker the move.

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Goal first reported City’s interest in Fred before Christmas , and it became apparent during the January transfer window that a deal worth roughly £40m was close to being agreed.

Sources have told Goal that Fred has been determined to join City ever since they first made their interest clear towards the end of 2017. 

Midway through January, City decided to bring their summer transfer business forward and sign as many of their long-term targets as quickly as possible.

Having sealed a deal for Aymeric Laporte by paying his £57m buy-out clause, City also pushed ahead with moves for Fred and Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez.

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The Blues failed to meet Leicester’s demands for Mahrez and could not persuade Shakhtar to sell Fred, but they have continued negotiations for the latter and will bring him in this summer, barring any hiccups.

City agreed deals of this nature for Ilkay Gundogan and Laporte in 2016, and Bernardo Silva in 2017. Laporte pulled out of his move at the last moment, but Gundogan and Silva were announced in June and May respectively.

Additional reporting by Manchester City correspondent Sam Lee*

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