Basel v Man City: With memories of Monaco still fresh Pep Guardiola out to demonstrate kamikaze defending a thing of the past
City scored five goals against the French club but were still eliminated at the last-16 stage. The Premier League leaders face Swiss club Basel on Tuesday minus several front-line defenders
It was history, but not in the way Pep Guardiola has tended to make it. Manchester City established a unique distinction last season. They became the first team to score five goals in an opening leg of a Uefa Champions League knockout tie and still go out. Their 5-3 win over Monaco offered compelling entertainment, but not the cushion they required. They lost 3-1 to the eventual semi-finalists and exited on away goals. “We scored six goals last season in the last 16 and were out,” Guardiola noted on Saturday.
The past often provides the context to the present. It certainly is at the Etihad Stadium. The sense is that this season is a reaction to last and an exercise in applying the lessons learned then.
Guardiola’s debut campaign in Manchester contained some unwanted firsts for a serial winner: a first finish outside the top two in a domestic league – City came third – and, after seven Champions League campaigns when he was at least a semi-finalist, a first last-16 departure.
The team that has subsequently emerged seems forged by disappointment. City are more consistent. They are more attuned to Guardiola’s passing game and have more athletic personnel. Whereas they conceded three goals in a game twice to Monaco, they have only done so once, at Anfield, in 40 matches this season. Unprompted, Guardiola warned this weekend that another 10-minute collapse like the one they suffered to Liverpool would result in their departure from the Champions League.
He feels scarred by setbacks. He has taken remedial action to try and heal the wounds. Over 80 per cent of City’s spending in the past 12 months has been on the defence. Jose Mourinho, presenting himself as an interested observer, has noted some of the prices of the recruits, but Guardiola has shrugged off the orthodox thinking being displayed at Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United where attack-minded players have commanded the bigger fees.
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Rewind to the second leg against Monaco and, of the goalkeeper and back four who started, only John Stones is even still at City. As the centre-back has been limited to nine minutes’ football in the last four games, he may be a substitute in Switzerland on Tuesday. If the overhaul was partly conducted with the Premier League in mind, a 16-point lead means City are assured of becoming champions, its necessity was highlighted in Europe.
This may form the start of a seven-match examination of that new-look defence. They do not approach it in ideal shape: Aymeric Laporte has only made two appearances for his new club, Stones has been sidelined and Benjamin Mendy and his deputy Fabian Delph both are. City have only kept two clean sheets in 10 games in 2018, instead relying on outscoring opponents, something they have usually done.
If Monaco represented a dangerous team to face last season so, in another way, do Basel. The St Jakob-Park can be a graveyard for English clubs. Mourinho’s United lost there in November. Chelsea and Liverpool have been beaten there, as were Alex Ferguson’s United.
Nevertheless, many another will envy the draw City got. It was a reward for winning their group. More than most, they know the perils of coming second in the pool. Instead, this year Chelsea finished as runners-up and were promptly pitted against Barcelona. Now, for only the second time, City should be able to plot a path into the last eight. Guardiola’s ambitions will not end there; not for a man with his track record. History can be a burden, but it can also be an inspiration. This season seems to suggest it has been an education for City as they look to demonstrate that kamikaze defending is confined to the past.
Updated: February 12, 2018 01:41 PM