Big Match

Football: City manager Pep Guardiola relishes favourites' tag, confident of retaining title

Pep Guardiola's Manchester City have started the season on a winning note with the Community Shield and will want to open their league defence with victory away at Arsenal.
Pep Guardiola's Manchester City have started the season on a winning note with the Community Shield and will want to open their league defence with victory away at Arsenal.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Guardiola dismisses mind games by Klopp, Sterling and de Bruyne fit to face Gunners

LONDON • Pep Guardiola yesterday embraced Manchester City's tag as the Premier League favourites after Liverpool counterpart Jurgen Klopp likened the champions to Ivan Drago, the fictional iron-willed boxer from the Rocky film series, after their procession to the title last season.

Speaking ahead of their visit to the Emirates Stadium tomorrow, the City manager acknowledged his side were still the team to beat this term and challenged his star-studded squad to not only emulate cross-town rivals Manchester United, who in 2009 were the last team to retain the title, but to also build on their success.

"Thank you, Jurgen. For nine years, I've lived with it (being the favourites), no problem. Every season except the first when I arrived (at Barcelona)... since then, we've (my teams) been the favourites," he said yesterday at his pre-match press conference.

"It's (back-to-back titles) a challenge but that's not the target. It's to win on Sunday (against Arsenal), then Huddersfield and Wolves. If we play well, we have a chance to repeat.

"We'll see at the end of the table... the main thing is to improve and then we'll see."

The Spaniard also shot down suggestions that he missed a trick in the transfer window by failing to sufficiently strengthen his team, with the £60 million (S$105 million) capture of winger Riyad Mahrez the only significant addition and that City had to scale back their spending given the heavy investment in past terms.

"They (my players) show me in two seasons, the last one especially, that we can trust them. We have a good squad. I said it last season many times that we cannot spend what we did last season every year," he said.

"Back then, we had seven or eight players of 30 or 31 years old. I said maybe one or two but we could not spend more than we have done this season. It's simple like that."

Guardiola, however, conceded that the failure to secure a work permit for Brazil Under-20 international Douglas Luiz - who had been pencilled as the understudy to veteran midfielder Fernandinho, 33 - had left a sour note and he hit out at the Football Association's decision.

"He's not allowed to play," Guardiola said of Luiz, who spent last season on loan to LaLiga sister club Girona. "It's so difficult for me to understand. One guy who doesn't see the player or any training sessions every day has to judge if he has the ability and quality to play."

The 47-year-old was, however, in better mood after expressing his delight at how well summer recruit Mahrez had integrated.

"He (Mahrez) has settled in well. He knows the league so that's good. Football players connect immediately with him and, after two or three days, he was just another member," he added.

Guardiola also sounded an ominous warning to the Gunners that forward Raheem Sterling and playmaker Kevin de Bruyne were fully fit and raring to go despite their World Cup semi-final exploits.

"Sterling is sharp. Kevin arrived in perfect condition," he said.

Arsenal manager Unai Emery conceded that the home team will be the underdogs against City and that Guardiola had the upper hand over him, as Emery has had no wins in 10 previous meetings.

"After two years with Guardiola, they (City) have today more stability and security," the Spaniard said.

"I am 46, he (Guardiola) is 47. He started his career as a bigger player than me. His career as a coach is bigger than me."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2018, with the headline 'Favourites? No problem'. Print Edition | Subscribe