Football: City 15pts clear but Pep insists Barca are gold standard

Newcastle goalkeeper Robert Elliot saving from Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus at St James' Park on Wednesday. The Magpies were especially negative in the opening half hour before Raheem Sterling scored the only goal of the game.
Newcastle goalkeeper Robert Elliot saving from Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus at St James' Park on Wednesday. The Magpies were especially negative in the opening half hour before Raheem Sterling scored the only goal of the game.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • After Manchester City continued their Premier League rampage on Wednesday, Pep Guardiola tried to calm the growing hype by suggesting his old Barcelona charges remain Europe's team to beat.

Even though City were wasteful in their 1-0 win at Newcastle, they still chalked up a record-extending 18th successive Premier League victory with some comfort.

So, as Guardiola reflected on a 15-point lead, it was little surprise that he was asked whether City had to be considered favourites for the Champions League as Europe's mesmerising form side.

"Who does (Lionel) Messi play for?" was his response. "Barcelona," came the reporter's answer. "So they're the favourites," shrugged the City manager.

Yet his City side continue to play such a dazzling brand of football that many observers feel they look equipped to take the mantle of the continent's pass-and-move masters. 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.

Sky Sports pundit and former England defender Gary Neville described the hosts' performance as "the most negative 30 minutes I've ever seen from a side in the Premier League". Half an hour of incessant City pressure finally led to Raheem Sterling's winner in the 31st minute.

"We did absolutely everything, but it is difficult to play when the other team doesn't want to play," said Guardiola, after his side won 11 straight away games in the top flight, equalling the record set by Chelsea in 2008.

That City scored only once, despite hitting the woodwork three times and enjoying 78 per cent possession as well as 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, injury-plagued captain Vincent Kompany limped off - this time after 11 minutes with an apparent recurrence of his persistent calf problems.

Guardiola's decision to replace him with forward Gabriel Jesus highlighted how cautious Newcastle were. But manager Benitez defended his tactics in a game where City defender Nicolas Otamendi completed 122 passes - seven more than what all the Newcastle outfield players managed (115).

"We had some chances at the end, and we expected to have to defend and play counter-attack," he said after Newcastle's fifth home defeat in a row - their worst run at St James' Park since 1953.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2017, with the headline 'City 15pts clear but Pep insists Barca are gold standard'. Print Edition | Subscribe