On the night where Tottenham Hotspur escaped the Bernabéu with a deserved point, and elsewhere Liverpool unleashed all their frustrations onto Maribor, it was the matchup between Manchester City and Napoli that took centre stage.
The two leaders of their respective leagues met last night in the Champions League, for a bout that would arouse the neutral fans. Both Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri stood abreast each other along the touchline where they waved around their sticks, conducting their teams like a conductor would an orchestra.
However, it was Guardiola’s men that were in tune from early, overwhelming the Italian side with waves of fluid attacks. Sarri’s men stuttered, their passing lacking its usual precision, making them prone to errors. Guardiola’s men circled in on Napoli like vultures, scoring two quick-fire goals.
Manchester City weaved passes together like a perfect melody, and the only blemish on such a captivating first-half performance was not adding to their 2-0 lead.
Before the game Sarri was quoted paying tribute to his opposition, "I think Man City are by far the strongest team in Europe at the moment" (via Goal.com), and after the first 30-35 minutes, it would seem he was not wrong in his estimation.
Fernandinho served as the cog to the whole operation, as he seemed to be at the centre of everything Man City did. Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling struck fear into the Napoli fullbacks, discouraging them from going forward. Guardiola’s game plan was displayed to full effect, and for those 30-35 minutes, Napoli had a look of Stoke-at-the-weekend to them.
However, Napoli lead the Serie A for a reason, and as the game ticked on their passing gained more precision, causing discomfort in Guardiola’s side.
Guardiola dished out strong admiration of his own regarding his opposition, "I like to watch them. I am a manager, a professional but a spectator as well. I like to watch football and I like to watch Napoli when I am sat in my home" (via The Independent). But it’s not only him that enjoys watching Napoli, as after this game more admirers of the Italian side grew in numbers.
Sarri’s philosophy of vertical passing was the lynchpin that helped his side manoeuvre around City’s press, and their front three; Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and José Callejón were becoming their usual sync.
Napoli’s fullbacks who were shackled by Sane and Sterling in the first half unpicked the locks and sort for freedom up the field. Faouzi Ghoulam and Elseid Hysaj were able to create overloads behind City’s press, joining up with their attacking front three – one passage leading to Ghoulam winning his side a second penalty.
Both sides were guilty of dangling the carrot in front of the donkey by choosing to play out from the back, and at times this led to mistakes, causing fans in the stadium to gasp in fear. Though, during the successful times, it was enough to have Houdini raise a smile in his grave, as the art of escaping deathly adversity was on display.
Guardiola and Sarri's unyielding mentality to not veer away from the football that has made them so pleasing to watch is just one of the reasons why this game was a master class.
As both managers lobbed compliments at each other like a tennis rally - before and after the game - the game itself was akin to a riveting chess match. The reverse fixture in two weeks will serve as an adequate time to mentally recover from the tactical bout of war that was exhibited yesterday.
Both managers will undoubtedly enjoy the homework they’ll have to do when their sides meet again, this time in Naples.