The Catalan is more used to opposition rolling over for his teams at home but is having to cope with vigour at every turn on a three-game winless streak.
Let’s be honest. Pep Guardiola would have preferred what Barcelona had on Saturday afternoon. Spain’s champion team played Deportivo La Coruna at Camp Nou and beat them 4-0 without having to be particularly impressive.
Luis Enrique – the Barca coach – could rest Andres Iniesta before facing Pep’s Manchester City in the Champions League on Wednesday. By half-time things were looking so rosy that goal scorer Luis Suarez could kick his boots off and enjoy the second half from the bench. It was 3-0 by that stage.
Lionel Messi got exactly what he needed; 35 minutes in the legs on his recovery from his latest groin injury. He even got on the scoresheet for good measure in the second half to make it four.
If all of that sounds straightforward, well, Depor even had a man sent off to make Barca’s job even easier. As a sparring exercise before a big game – and particularly coming off international week – it could not have gone much better.
Now contrast that to City’s 1-1 draw against Everton. City were so desperate to get a win in the final few minutes that they threw on Vincent Kompany as an auxiliary striker. That in itself was not very characteristic of the measured control Guardiola normally goes for.
In an ideal world Kevin de Bruyne could have done with what Messi had; a gentle half hour to work his way back into match fitness. The Belgium playmaker injured his hamstring in the Premier League game against Swansea on September 24. Here he was just three weeks into a four-to-five week diagnosis growing red in the face even earlier than usual. To make matters worse he missed a penalty.
So too did Sergio Aguero. What he needed was a reminder of the goal-scoring knack that had brought him 11 strikes in his first eight City matches of the season. That momentum was abruptly curtailed by a trip to South America for Argentina’s international fixtures. First, there was a draw in Peru. Then there was a loss at home against Paraguay in which Kun missed yet another spot kick and which had local commentators pleading with the striker to leave the international stage once and for all. Meanwhile, Messi was posting pictures on Instagram of his view of the Paraguay match – in front of the TV with a cup of maté.
Guardiola named Kelechi Iheanacho in the lone striker’s position for the Everton visit with Aguero afforded some time off after the long trip back from Buenos Aires midweek. Had De Bruyne knocked home the penalty and City grown their momentum then he might not have been needed at all. Aguero’s own fluffed rescue act probably only made things worse despite Guardiola’s pre-match assertion that his star man was emotionally fine after a bad week.
The Catalan fielded what many will regard as his best midfield – with the 30-year-old David Silva also playing the full 90 – but it was not enough to break down his old friend Ronald Koeman. Pep conceded that City were missing that final pass which denied them the opportunity to get in total control. Instead it was high-wire football with everyone bar Claudio Bravo in the Toffees’ half.
A familiar Guardiola flaw has always been that ball into midfield off which a striker can spin for a run at goal. It cost his Bayern Munich team in the semi-final of the Champions League against Atletico Madrid last season; Antoine Griezmann being the beneficiary of a Fernando Torres pass.
Yesterday it was Yannick Bolasie playing a ball around the corner for the run of his big friend Romelu Lukaku. For evidence that he is growing into the world’s best centre forward – as per the prediction of his international boss Roberto Martinez – look no further than the expertise in that run and finish.
City had been probing – but lacking that certain something – when Everton broke out. A rash John Stones challenge facilitated the through ball and suddenly City were digging themselves out of a hole. Pep’s philosophy faces accusations of being a house of cards so long as straight balls down the middle knock it over.
“I hear a lot of time about that intensity in the Premier League but none of you have been in La Liga or the Bundesliga to know how is the intensity,” he said. That argument was somewhat undermined not only by Barcelona’s rout but Atletico Madrid’s 7-1 vanquishing of Getafe and Real’s subsequent hammering of Betis. Bear in mind also that Guardiola failed to win only seven of his 51 home matches in charge of Bayern Munich over three seasons – and three of those came after they had secured league titles.
However, he did concede one point. “Here the problem is maybe more games.” But Guardiola is going to have to get used to the fact that no mercy will be shown at the weekends in the Premier League – neither by the fixture schedulers nor the opposition – in preparation for Champions League in midweek.
City are three matches without a win – something that only happened to Guardiola at Bayern when the title was already wrapped up – and walking into Camp Nou heavier in the legs and maybe a little heavier in their hearts.