As a measure of why Pep Guardiola spoke so effusively about Manchester City’s latest opponents in the Champions League, it is worth bearing in mind Monaco’s achievements this season eclipse those of the Paris Saint-Germain side who just had the temerity to win 4-0 against Barcelona and knock the throne off football royalty.
Monaco are not only looking down on PSG from the top of the French league but, to put it into context, they have scored 76 goals from 26 games compared with 50 for the Qatari-funded team who gave Barça one of their worst chasings for many years.
Monaco have scored four or more on 10 different occasions in their domestic league this season, including one five-week period where they won 7-0 at Metz then put six past both Montpellier and Nancy, and their previous assignments against English opposition provide a neat riposte to anyone who argues Ligue 1 should not be an accurate barometer of a team’s ability.
Leonardo Jardim’s side have already beaten Tottenham Hotspur home and away in the Champions League’s group stages this season, winning 2-1 on both occasions, and the last time they reached the knockout stages of this competition two years ago they won 3-1 at Arsenal, a victory acclaimed by L’Équipe as “one of the great Champions League performances by a French club”.
The worry for City must be that Les Monégasques are a far more formidable team now. No other side in Europe has been so prolific this season or played with such a sense of attacking adventure. “Their first goal against Tottenham was a cross from a full-back and a header from another full-back,” Guardiola noted, “that is not easy” – and it was difficult to think of another time, other than when Barcelona visited Manchester in November and he described Lionel Messi and Neymar as “almost unstoppable”, that City’s manager has sounded so fulsome about an opponent.
“As a spectator, it is so nice to see them,” Guardiola said. “I am really impressed how good they are. The full-backs play like wingers, the wingers play like attacking midfielders. The two strikers are fighters – Falcao and Germain, they are killers in the box. Both holding midfielders – Silva and Bakoyoko – are intelligent, physically strong. A complete team. It is the most successful team in Europe in terms of scoring goals and a tough draw.”
“I’m looking forward to playing against them and seeing what our level is and I just have compliments because they are a really good team. I know how tough PSG can be in the French league. Yet this season Monaco are top, four or five points ahead, and that shows how good a job Jardim has done.”
Three points actually but it is easy to understand the gist when Monaco are averaging almost three goals a game in Ligue 1, historically a defence-minded league, and needed only eight home matches, with 31 goals, to go past their total of 30 for the whole of last season.
Two years ago, Monaco won their Champions League group with four goals in six games, whereas this season they scored nine times. Rudi García, the Marseille manager, summed it up rather neatly after his side were beaten 4-0 at Stade Louis II in November. Monaco, he said, would “score even if asked to play blindfolded”. The sides played again in Marseille last month – and Monaco won 4-1.
For City, it is another occasion when they need to show they should no longer be classed as Champions League novices. Guardiola was still keen to make the point that the club were on a learning curve, pinching his finger and thumb together to sum up what he meant by their “short history” at the top end of European football, but this is their 47th Champions League tie since september 2011, and last year they reached the semi-finals. By this stage, they should have the hang of it.
What they will need is the kind of balance between attack and defence that has not always been apparent this season. Sergio Agüero, back in the team because of Gabriel Jesus’s broken metatarsal, needs to rediscover some of his old stardust – “We are going to talk with him, like with all his team-mates, to convince him in these two games,” Guardiola said – and Yaya Touré’s role as the deepest-lying midfielder could be crucial to negate Monaco’s counterattacking threat.
Touré was rested from the FA Cup tie at Huddersfield with this game in mind, while Willy Caballero is probably entitled to think he deserves to start in goal ahead of Claudio Bravo.
Guardiola, hired with the specific job of bringing the European Cup to Manchester, sounded like he wanted City to embrace this competition in a way that was seldom the case under Manuel Pellegrini or Roberto Mancini.
“The passion, how beautiful it is, how amazing it is to be here again,” he said. “We are lucky guys. Always I play these games and think: ‘Wow, I’m lucky’ because I know how difficult it is as a manager, like a player, to be here.”
“I want to convince the players to enjoy the moment because it is beautiful. All of Europe will watch us. They will kill us if we don’t win, or say how good we are if we do. That is a huge experience and it’s beautiful to live it.”