A point against Olympiacos will be enough to secure their passage to the knock-out stages with two games to spare and though Pep Guardiola is taking little for granted, his decision to leave both Kevin De Bruyne and Kyle Walker at home spoke to a confidence that his players will get the job done.
Both De Bruyne and Walker trained with the rest of Guardiola’s squad yesterday morning. But a perfect record in Group C to date has opened a window in City’s compressed schedule for certain players to rest, recuperate and return for a Premier League campaign that is not exactly going to plan.
City’s 12 points from eight games is their lowest total at this stage of the season during the Abu Dhabi era, while their paltry tally of 10 goals is their lowest since 2006-07. That year, Stuart Pearce’s side failed to score a single goal at home after New Year’s Day, ultimately posting a record low in top-flight English football.
Nobody expects the highest-scorers in each of the last three seasons to repeat that ignoble feat. There are mitigating factors in City’s favour. The absences of Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero for significant parts of the season cannot be ignored. Their early schedule – taking in five of the top 10 plus Leeds away and a defensively-sound Arsenal – has not been the most favourable. In Europe, they have had relatively few problems.
And yet, City’s issues in attack are difficult to write off as a mere blip when not even their manager thinks that anymore. The problem is so pronounced – and has been such a source of debate over the last few days – that Guardiola himself identified it as the single biggest reason for his side’s unconvincing start to the season and claimed full responsibility for the issue.
“The reason why is the manager, I have to find a way,” he said. “I have to find a way to adapt the qualities that we have, because the same players in different seasons can make different movements and can be in better form or not better form. I have to adjust something, to let them feel we can create more chances. It’s in my hands to help them.”
By contrast, Guardiola would not even entertain the other criticism which has been widely levelled at his players this season – that defensively, they are vulnerable to being counter-attacked. “That’s not the big problem right now,” he insisted. “It’s our fluidity to attack, to win more often and to create more chances. This is the target we have to improve… that I have to [improve].”
It may be that the two are related. City became a porous side last season and the trauma Guardiola very rarely discusses the intricacies of his tactics with journalists and was predictably guarded – sarcastic, even – when asked whether a change in instructions or formation is responsible. “No, we are playing with 11 – that’s for sure,” he smiled.
But if City have lost some of their attacking verve, the next few weeks should tell us for certain. Burnley travel to the Etihad on Saturday, then Fulham the weekend after and once a Manchester derby at Old Trafford is out of the way, West Bromwich Albion are in town.That’s the three sides currently sat 17th, 18th and 19th in the table at the Etihad soon, all within the space of three weeks. Between them, they have conceded 48 goals already this season.
It was in these types of games – against bottom-half opposition at home – that City exploded during the summer’s Project Restart period. Newcastle, Burnley and Norwich each suffered 5-0 batterings – even newly-crowned champions Liverpool were hit for four – while across the whole campaign, City scored 47 goals against bottom-half teams at the Etihad. That’s nearly half the number of goals last season scored in just a quarter of their games.
Flat-track bullies? Maybe, but it sometimes takes a five or six-nil against relegation candidates to remind a great team of the heights that they can reach. With Aguero and Jesus back and their schedule easing slightly, City’s attack should rediscover some form over the next few weeks. But if the goals scored column is still a little on the anemic side by Christmas, Guardiola will really have something to worry about.
Olympiacos: Sa; Rafinha, Semedo, Cisse, Holebas; M’Vila, Bouchalakis; Randjelovic, Fortounis, Masouras; Sourdani.
Manchester City: Ederson; Cancelo, Dias, Laporte, Mendy; Bernardo, Rodri, Gundogan; Mahrez, Aguero, Sterling.