LONDON • Pep Guardiola refuted suggestions that his return to the touchline was the inspiration behind Manchester City's 5-0 thrashing of Cardiff City on Saturday, insisting that it was his players who deserved the spotlight .
The Spaniard had to serve a one-game ban on Wednesday and City's shock 2-1 Champions League loss to Lyon at the Etihad was attributed to his absence from the dugout.
City, however, showed no sign of any European hangover and Guardiola saluted his "incredible players" as the Premier League champions recovered from their midweek blip, with Riyad Mahrez's first goals for the club sending an ominous warning to their title rivals.
In what was a perfect performance in Wales, Sergio Aguero celebrated the club's decision to extend his contract until 2021 to score on his 300th appearance, while there were also outstanding displays from Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva.
The comfortable outing in the Welsh capital also marked the 10th time City have scored five or more goals since Guardiola was appointed manager in 2016 .
Yet perhaps most significant for City were the long-awaited maiden goals for their £60 million (S$107 million) club-record summer signing Mahrez, who finally broke his duck with a fine second-half double from off the bench.
"It's important for him, I'm pretty sure," Guardiola, who replaced Aguero with Mahrez for the final 30 minutes, told the BBC.
"But Riyad is an incredibly talented player. I'm so satisfied with his behaviour, the way he's played and trained. We don't have any doubt about his quality."
However, there were no guarantees from Guardiola that Mahrez had done enough to earn a permanent starting place given the embarrassment of riches in City's squad.
"He (Mahrez) knows he has to fight (for a spot in the first XI) because he's in such a talented squad, but I'm so calm when I can put in players like (Phil) Foden," said the 47-year-old, who has not yet played Mahrez for the entire 90 minutes in any match.
"The season is too long and they have to be ready because they are going to play a lot of minutes."
Guardiola also expressed his delight at his squad's response to the midweek setback. "They are incredible players because they've shown me that in the last 13, 14 months, every single day," he added.
"The managers, we are there to be there when they have little doubts, to support them. It's the same group, they keep reacting, they are an exceptional group.
"They deserve all my respect. They made me happy the last two seasons, and that's why I will always be with them.
"After a not good result, we responded with the same level we had for the last 12 or 13 months."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS