The theme of the night was definitely Mediterranean as Britain’s Italians flooded to the Etihad to join the nearly 3000 who had made the trip from the South of Italy.
Two of the best attacking line-ups in Europe, if not the world were ready to stand toe-to-toe to entertain the crowd with a plethora of positive football of the kind that you will not be seeing across town anytime soon.
Having marmalised Stoke City last Saturday, Guardiola went with an identical starting eleven with the same kind of result in mind. And in the opening exchanges it looked as though it might happen again.
City were out of the blocks rapidly against the Neapolitans, who are no mugs, sport a similar set of statistics to City, if not slightly better and include Pepe Reina guarding the sticks plus an array of attack-minded players such as Hamsik, Diawara, Insigne, Callejon and Mertens. They did however express a little caution by including Zielinski.
The game was barely settling into rhythm when Sane slid an excellent pass into the path of Silva who immediately threaded it through in the direction of the far post where Walker was unlucky not to cash up. His shot rebounded of Reina directly to Sterling who couldn’t and didn’t miss. Raheem is well on target to have his best scoring season this time around, a tribute to his desire and dedication and his ability to not only listen to his manager’s instructions, but to implement them.
The blue faithful sniffed another goal fest especially as only four minutes later De Bruyne capitalised on City’s build up play down the right, spotted de Jesus shaking off the defenders and playing a crisp curling pass behind the defence and into the path of the young Brazilian who also couldn’t and didn’t miss. How many tonight boys?
With the match less than a quarter of an hour old, it was in danger of running away from the Italians who needed to pull themselves together. City were carving holes in their midfield and creating for themselves an abundance of chances, none more so than De Bruyne himself, stepping inside and curling a howler for the top corner. With Reina beaten, Italian eyes were delighted to see the ball rebound to safety when the Belgian really deserved a goal for all his assists in recent matches.
But it wasn’t to be and Sarri demonstrated that, like Guardiola, you need to have a plan B, C and D. He reshuffled his charges to cut out the penetration channels in which De Bruyne thrives and shackled Silva down too. This meant that Sterling lost his edge and with Sane playing like he had his boot laces tied together, the forward thrust was dependent upon de Jesus, who had a second attempt cleared off the line.
As the first half wore on the talent that is prevalent in this Napoli team emerged and their neat quick pass-and-move tactics started to cause City problems, but Stones, Otamendi and Fernandinho somehow kept the door shut. That was until an unnecessary piece of pushing in front of goal was spotted by one of those joke officials on the touchline and left the Spanish referee pointing to the spot.
Generally, in Champions League terms this is never an issue with City with the last six having been saved. Ederson decided to add his weight to that making an excellent stop as City got themselves to the break still at 2-0.
In the second half you could have been forgiven for thinking that someone had constructed a huge mirror on the half way line. Napoli’s performance was so good it looked as though City were playing against themselves! At times it was end-to-end, at others it was backs-against-the-wall stuff, but with Stones imperious and Ederson unperturbed, it didn’t look as though the Blues were going to concede against a side well capable of goals but lacking that killer instinct demonstrated in abundance by City this season.
That was until the 73rd minute when a run which started on half way saw Ghoulam outsprint City’s tiring midfield and accept the challenge from Fernandinho and plummet to the grass. This time it was the huge frame of Diawara that stepped up to take responsibility. He drilled the penalty to Ederson’s left and although the equally big Brazilian guessed correctly, it did go right into the corner and only just inside the post.
At 2-1 all bets were off and Napoli went for it. City actually went for a while unable to recapture the ball for any length of time as Sane, De Bruyne and Fernandinho gave the ball away, allowing Napoli to build from good starting points.
Even as recently as last season, this would have been a signal for a City capitulation and I doubt the Blues would have got out of this fixture with a winning margin. But as I have said earlier, the partnership between Stones and Otamendi looks considerably less fragile now that they have an excellent and trustworthy net minder behind them. Delph and Walker were forced into a more defensive role which took away City’s potency going forward and Napoli kept up the pressure.
That said both replacements Bernardo Silva and Gundogan both had chances to make the game safe but were unable to make their chances count. The last ten minutes was one of those where every decision seemed to go against City and seemed designed to keep the pressure on the beleaguered Blues. City did however slug it out with Napoli and resisted everything thrown at them to take the match 2-1.
What we saw here was a new-born confidence in City and a new-born resistance to a side that was capable of playing City at their own game, unafraid of attacking, but themselves eventually having enough resolve in defence to make life difficult.
Although Bernardo and Gundogan were introduced to generate a new attacking impetus, Pep’s final substitution was to send on Danilo to help Fernandinho. It was clear by minute 85 that City’s scoring feats for the night were over and it was about not letting Napoli secure an equaliser, which their second half performance might have deserved – that extra layer of defensive cover did the job.
For once it was a night where none of the attacking element of the team really deserved to be crowned man-of-the-match. For me it was John Stones who put in a commanding performance at centre half. With every match he is looking better and better and I doubt there will be a Premier League front line, with possibly the exception of Spuds who will give him as much work to do as the lively Napoli.
Ederson, too, needs a mention. I think it was Mertens who got through one-on-one with the goalkeeper who sprinted out of his box to head out the bouncing ball. Not only does Ederson head it out, but he also finds a blue shirt!
City will be pleased to have got out of the door with 3 vital points and are now sitting pretty at the top of group F with 9 points. A win in Italy next month will secure qualification and enable the Blues to rest their key ingredients for the last 2 matches in the Champions League as Arsenal and the Stretfords lie in wait in the Premier League ahead of Christmas.
Next up is Burnley, usually awkward customers. Guardiola needs to let his stars have a bit of a rest this week before firing them up supposedly for a game of attack and defence.
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