There was an excellent moment in the depths of Ukraine, three months ago, when the problem which now threatens the notion of a Premier League title race was characterised by Pep Guardiola as a test of his cognitive skills.
‘For three or four months I don’t know what will happen,’ the Manchester City manager said, 24 hours after John Stones had joined Aymeric Laporte on the treatment table, leaving a gaping hole in his defensive resources.
Guardiola lingered late, answering obscure questions about the Kharkiv property market and Ukrainian football after a 3-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk. He was impressive. ‘Bring it on,’ he seemed to be saying.
Pep Guardiola's rhetoric after the draw with Newcastle felt like little more than a sulk
The contrast with what, at times, was an excruciating press conference in Manchester yesterday could hardly be more striking. In the 15 games since that night in eastern Europe, City have kept just five clean sheets and are on a run of seven games without one.
But Guardiola’s reluctance to discuss entirely justifiable questions posed by the BBC — about why Fernandinho is not operating in midfield again when Nicolas Otamendi is on the bench — felt like little more than a sulk.
‘We are happy with our defence,’ and, ‘We are not good enough; we improve,’ were two of the responses, so contradictory that it was hard to tell whether the latter was sarcasm. Silence fell several times as the room waited for elaboration that never came. Someone ended the awkwardness by asking his views about Burnley.
Guardiola insists Fernandinho is still worthy of a starting spot at the heart of City's defence
We’ve been witnessing the gloom from Guardiola for a number of weeks, as Liverpool’s lead over his team has widened to 11 points. His observation after victory over Chelsea two weeks ago was that tennis players and golfers lose sometimes, so it’s fine for City to accept the same. Extraordinary.
He’s been like this before. In the 2011-12 season at Barcelona, Jose Mourinho was proving an intense rival at Real Madrid. ‘We are not going to win La Liga,’ said Guardiola, flatly, after his side had beaten Atletico Madrid 2-1 away in late February. Many felt that was defeatism, with 14 games left, so he toned things down a few days later, saying there was ‘little chance’ they could close the gap. Real won the league.
Jose Mourinho proved a worthy adversary for Pep Guardiola when he joined Real Madrid
For the sake of the Premier League’s competitive balance, it is to be hoped that he can put away this