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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Pep Guardiola and Manchester City's challenge is now to sustain and improve on greatness

The Premier League champions are set for a record-breaking campaign and the next task now is to be the first side to retain the title since 2009 and also go further in the Uefa Champions League

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has made the club No 1 in the Premier League this season. The challenge is now to repeat it and win the Uefa Champions League in 2018/19. David Klein / Reuters
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has made the club No 1 in the Premier League this season. The challenge is now to repeat it and win the Uefa Champions League in 2018/19. David Klein / Reuters

When the greatest Premier League champions are assessed, one team tends to top the lists. Manchester United’s class of 1998-99 are often named the finest.

And yet they finished with 79 points, a total Manchester City’s current crop passed as early as 12 March.

United’s greatness, however, lay less in pipping Arsenal to the prize by a solitary point than in the fact that they recorded a historic treble: Premier League, FA Cup, Uefa Champions League.

It is why United’s team of 2008, who were champions of both England and Europe, are sometimes placed second.

And yet Manchester City’s newly-anointed winners are on course to establish a different sort of supremacy.

Chelsea’s divisional records of 30 wins, 95 points and 103 goals feel well within their grasp with City on respectively 28 wins, 87 points and 93 goals with five games of the campaign, all against teams in the lower half of the table, remaining.

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United’s biggest winning margin of 18 points may be beatable, too. Any two, let alone all four, would give them a cast-iron case to greatness, even without European honours.

Not that Pep Guardiola has ever given the impression that he is overly motivated by records.

Statistics have been a by-product of the style, the results secured while Guardiola has focused on the performance.

Yet they are measures of excellence, indications that that City have raised the bar and exerted a revolutionary impact with their style of play.

They have had record shares of possession and numbers of passes in individual games during the campaign.

A collective are dominating the individual charts: goals, assists, passes, touches, chances created. Their dominance of the division was underlined at the Etihad Stadium in March when Chelsea produced perhaps the most negative display by a defending champion and still lost the game. City have intimidated even the best with their excellence.

And yet there can be a temptation to demand perfection on every front.

Guardiola was first asked in October about going through the season unbeaten. They did not, just as there was no quadruple as they were found wanting by Liverpool in the Champions League.

Which, as only two English champions since 1984 have added the European Cup to their trophy cabinet in the same season, is entirely normal.

Instead, they feel destined to join the bracket of the outstanding Premier League sides. along with Arsenal’s double Double winners and the Invincibles of 2003-04 and Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea side, who accumulated 95 points while only conceding 15 goals

The league measures consistency, as Jose Mourinho underlined on Sunday, and those sides, like this City, were consistently excellent.

They have received accolades from the game’s alumni. The division’s greatest player, Thierry Henry, said they played better football than his Arsenal team. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp oversaw three victories over City but called them the best team in Europe.

So if one of their next targets has be to deliver the level of flawlessness in pivotal matches required to win the Champions League and establish themselves in the European elite, other objectives must still be domestic, to ensure a stunning season is not a one-off.

Tellingly, their captain immediately set his sights on retaining the English crown. “It’s not a dynasty,” said Vincent Kompany. “It is one title, but there is so much work before this potential is unlocked.”

It was instructive that his immediate focus was on England, not Europe. The sense is that Guardiola’s ultimate aim will be winning his third, and City’s first, Champions League.

But Kompany was speaking from experience. He married into a family of Mancunians. He knows no one has retained the title since United did so in 2009.

City’stitle defences have felt anti-climactic, though the table shows they are less so than everyone else’s.

They have accumulated the most points since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. City seem to have the relentlessness, the ambition and the talent to do so form the first dynasty since Ferguson’s at Old Trafford that saw United dominate the first two decades of the league.

And that, almost certainly, is what City's rivals will fear going forward.