Pep Guardiola sends strong Man City message with Champions League squad

Setting out his stall

Pep Guardiola insisted he hadn’t decided whether to leave some players in Manchester after their 3-1 win over Watford as he weighed up complete rest versus squad momentum.

On the one hand, players cannot put their feet up so easily if they have to travel thousands of miles on a plane for a game they are unlikely to play in. But with the group in such a good groove at the moment, would leaving stars at home risk knocking everyone out of it?

Guardiola said on Monday that he was taking a squad to beat RB Leipzig but he also indicated it would not be full strength and his travelling squad confirmed as much: Bernardo Silva, Rodri, Joao Cancelo were all omitted with responsibility for carrying on the strong performances falling to those that haven’t been as essential in recent weeks.

The manager needs as strong a squad as possible to challenge on all fronts and this will test how good the depth is.

The Foden principle

Dead rubbers are about as appealing as they sound, and the best thing that can come out of the match from a City perspective has already occurred in the absence of Bernardo, Cancelo and Rodri from the pitch.

However, Guardiola has won the litany of trophies that he has at City because he refuses to let his players decide which game they will put maximum effort into. There will be many changes from the Premier League regulars, yet it will still be a team expected to win the game and all young players that are given minutes will be firmly under the microscope.

It was in a similar situation, away at Shakhtar Donetsk in 2017, that a certain Phil Foden was given his first start – as a left wing-back – and he earned more opportunities after passing that test.

There may be no immediate success stories from this match but it can still be an important evening for several players and prospects.

Mix and match

Guardiola gave starts to five academy players in the Carabao Cup win over Wycombe, but admitted after the game that it is not the best way to blood them and wouldn’t have been done unless made absolutely necessary by injuries to senior players.

Five youngsters have travelled with the squad to Germany – if we are still counting Cole Palmer among them – and at least some of them will start, but there will also be experience in the side; Kevin De Bruyne is primed for his first start since recovering from Covid while game time for John Stones, Nathan Ake, and Aleks Zinchenko and others will be welcome ahead of a busy schedule.

Enjoy it while you can

Aston Villa did what few teams do against City and gave them space, resulting in that blistering counter-attack that Bernardo Silva brilliantly finished off on the volley. Watford went at the Blues too and could have easily conceded six in the opening 25 minutes.

RB Leipzig are at home with a point to prove after sacking their manager at the weekend, and certainly gave it a go during their 6-3 defeat at the Etihad back in September. In their only previous home matches against English opposition – against Spurs in 2019 and United in 2020 – they have scored three goals on each occasion.

With Wolves, Leeds and Newcastle next up for City, Guardiola’s side must enjoy the freedom that comes with playing sides that take the game to them before they run into the low blocks that are far more common.

Eyes on Nkunku

Every season an opposition player impresses in City’s Champions League group and every year City are linked with buying them before December is out. (Dani Olmo doesn’t count because he was the player in the 2019/20 season when he was at Dinamo Zagreb).

This time the attention is on RB Leipzig midfielder Christopher Nkunku, who bagged a hat-trick at the Etihad and has gone on to score a further four to clock up an impressive seven goals from five games; only Sebastian Haller and Robert Lewandowski (both nine) have scored more.

With Europa League qualification still to play for, the Bundesliga team will be aiming to leave nothing to chance and Nkunku will be one of their main threats – even if it is difficult to see where he would fit into a City squad already stuffed with talent.

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