EPL need not fear a Pep era

TO the "second is nowhere" brigade, it was the last thing the Premier League needed. As if having Manchester City 11 points ahead after 18 games isn't enough of a one-horse race, the prospect of Pep Guardiola sticking around for many years surely is.

After the miracle of Leicester helped flog the idea that anybody can win the title comes the reality check: backed by Abu Dhabi wealth, Pep could take City out of sight.

The EPL prides itself on its Big Six: not for them a Juventus-style domination or even a two horse race such as in Spain and Germany – at least until Borussia Dortmund fell away.

By asking Pep to create a dynasty, City are threatening to do what PSG are aiming for in France and beyond. But is it such a bad thing? Competition should still be fierce: nowhere else has five clubs like United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal.

Second has long since ceased to be nowhere thanks to the Champions League. However, if the same side runs away with it every year, the global appeal of the EPL could wane – no matter how successful or entertaining the top team are.

Look at Spain. In Real Madrid and Barcelona, they have had respectively the most successful and entertaining sides in the world for years yet their league – El Clasico apart – is not widely watched.

Conversely, having a super team can raise the overall standard and may even help the national side. No less than seven Barca players won the 2010 World Cup, half the Bayern team did likewise in 2014.

Already there are unmistakable signs that Man City's home contingent is improving under the tutelage of Guardiola: it's just a pity from England's point of view that there aren't that many of them.

Behind the fears for the future – and bear in mind we've not even reached Xmas – there is an unspoken awe of Guardiola's coaching ability – and not a little jealousy in some quarters.

Yes, the money is a big thing – and an awful lot has been spent on "the City project". But no more than what Roman Abramovich has lavished on Chelsea.

It is also no more than what the Glazers have racked up in unnecessary debt and interest on the other side of town. They have spent heavily of late, but only out of panic at the post-Fergie decline.

It is also similar to what Stan Kroenke has in his coffers but which Arsene Wenger refuses to spend at Arsenal. Silent Stan has paid more for a ranch in Texas than Wenger has for a player.

But if the size of City's funding can be compared with that available to their rivals, their coach seems to be in a league of his own.

After an uncertain first season, we wondered if the Catalan was all he was cracked up to be. But now he's got most of the players he wants and has had time to work on them, what we are seeing is something to behold.

Man for man, City are nowhere near as talented as the squad Guardiola inherited as a rookie boss at Barcelona. Indeed, only David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne would be on the same wavelength as Messrs Xavi, Iniesta and Messi – yet this City team are being mentioned in such company and are favourites to win the Champions League.

Certain individuals are unrecognisable from a year ago and that has nothing to do with money. Other managers have also had their successes – notably Jose Mourinho with Nemanja Matic freeing up Paul Pogba and Jurgen Klopp offering a new lease of life to Mo Salah – but Pep has transformed City.

None have benefited more than the previously unconvincing English quartet of Fabian Delph, Kyle Walker, John Stones and Raheem Sterling. Indeed, the phrase 'getting blood out of stones' is hard to avoid and no pun is intended.

City's supremacy over the chasing pack was underlined once again on Saturday when Real Madrid-conquering Spurs were outclassed. It was a salutary lesson but at least there was some overdue graciousness from the vanquished.

Mauricio Pochettino admitted Spurs were "thrashed" and that it was "valuable in teaching us how much we have to do to catch up". Such a contrast to Mourinho blaming the referee and Wenger putting it all down to oil wealth.

The erstwhile Special One can hardly deny that he sparked last weekend's melee – a classic diversionary tactic to shift attention from a bad defeat. It wouldn't be jealousy, would it?

But even that was surpassed by the curmudgeon at the Emirates. Asked about the difference between City and his Invincibles, the Frenchman said: "Look, we had no petrol but ideas. They have petrol and ideas, so that makes it more efficient."

So that's it then. 'Petrol' has turned Sterling from headless chicken to the League's leading scorer. Perhaps a few litres of Ron 97 have transformed Stones from dodgy to the new Gerard Pique, while for turning Delph from journeyman midfielder to ball-playing left-back we must be talking rocket fuel.

The good news for neutrals is that both United and Liverpool clawed the deficit back to 11 points on Sunday night and even if the title race is all but over, the scrap for Champions League places is likely to go to the wire.

And if we really are entering an era of Blue Moon domination, not all is on the dark side. The standard of football elsewhere in the EPL should be raised as the rest scramble to match the Pep magic and that could, in turn, lead to more success in Europe. And, let's face it, the EPL is overdue an outstanding team.

It is to City's great good fortune that Sheikh Mansour opted for them when he decided to invest in football. But money alone does not do it – as Abramovich has discovered with his constant churn of managers at Chelsea.

But, on this season's evidence, City "won the lottery" a second time when they signed Guardiola. Top players will want to play for him and the spillover effect should benefit the game in general just as Wenger's ideas did when he first arrived.

It is sad and ironic that this erstwhile innovator cannot acknowledge a worthy successor – and downright insulting to Guardiola. As it was in Barcelona and Munich, a Pep era can be good for the game as a whole. For those who think it's all down to fuel, it will just be added to their own funeral pyre.


GOOD: Roy Hodgson

There's a first time for everything, and instead of alternating between Mo Salah and Man City, we're giving credit to an unlikely recipient this week. When the 70-year-old Hodgson took over Palace they look doomed. But the old man is a bit more savvy than we thought and with a bit of tinkering and a fit Wilfried Zaha, they are a different team – and now have a fighting chance or staying up.

BAD: England's cricketers

They are way beyond bad. Looking at the third whitewash down under in recent memory, only England can collapse from 364 for 4 to losing by an innings. They are one-day sloggers and nothing more - a disgrace to the game.

UGLY: Harry Kane & Dele Alli

On another day their fouls would have been red card offences. Sadio Mane would certainly think Kane's head-high boot in Sterling's face was worse than the one that earned the Liverpool man a red against City. But Alli's on Kevin de Bruyne was worse than that – and a worrying sign this promising player is beginning to lose the plot.

STUPID: Antoine Griezmann

Atletico Madrid's Antoine Griezmann thought it a bit of fun to don a wig and blacken his face, arms and legs for a Fancy Dress do. But this is 2017, Antoine, and such behaviour is not acceptable. He took it off twitter and apologised, calling it "clumsy". We call it stupid.