Manchester, United Kingdom, Feb 20 – A hotly anticipated staging post in Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola era arrives on Tuesday when Monaco visit the Etihad Stadium in the first leg of the Champions League last 16.
Guardiola was appointed to take City to the next level on the European stage and he has already masterminded a stirring 3-1 win over his former club Barcelona in the group phase.
But Monaco have been rampant this season, powering to the Ligue 1 summit with a tally of 76 goals that is unsurpassed in Europe’s five major leagues, and Guardiola is keenly aware of the danger they pose.
“I am really impressed by how good they are,” Guardiola told Monday’s pre-match press conference.
“They are physically strong. The full-backs play like wingers, the wingers play like attacking midfielders.
“The two strikers — (Radamel) Falcao and (Valere) Germain — are killers in the box.
“It is the most successful team in Europe in terms of scoring goals. I’m looking forward to playing against them because they are a really, really good team.”
Guardiola and his assistant Mikel Arteta watched Monaco’s game at Paris Saint-Germain last month, when a 92nd-minute equaliser from Bernardo Silva rescued a 1-1 draw.
Another Silva equaliser secured another 1-1 draw in Monaco’s last outing, at Bastia on Friday, but in the main they have encountered scant resistance in the French top flight this season.
Monaco have averaged 2.92 goals per league game, scoring four or more on no fewer than 10 occasions, and have already prevailed on English soil, winning 2-1 at Tottenham Hotspur in the group stage.
Three successive wins have lifted City to second place in the Premier League table, eight points below leaders Chelsea, but they remain a work in progress.
It is just over a month since their scarring 4-0 defeat at Everton — their fifth defeat of the campaign — and Guardiola’s selection decisions continue to raise eyebrows.
Claudio Bravo, signed amid great fanfare to replace Joe Hart, has been axed after a string of weak displays, meaning Willy Caballero, City’s nominal third-choice goalkeeper in August, is now the number one.
– Falcao return –
What City’s defensive configuration will be against Monaco, meanwhile, is anyone’s guess.
A rotating cast of full-backs has seen midfielder Fernandinho fill in on both flanks of the defence of late, while Aleksandar Kolarov continues to flit between left-back and centre-back.
Guardiola has confirmed captain Vincent Kompany will miss Tuesday’s game with a leg injury that kept him out of Saturday’s 0-0 FA Cup draw at Huddersfield Town.
Sergio Aguero is expected to keep his place up front after Gabriel Jesus’s impressive start to life at City was cut short by a broken foot that could keep him out for the rest of the season.
While uncertainty abounds regarding City’s best XI, Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco team largely picks itself.
Joao Moutinho, a European champion with Portugal, cannot get into the team and 18-year-old sensation Kylian Mbappe, whose 11 goals this season include two hat-tricks, begins most games on the bench.
Both could start, however, if Jardim elects to ditch his habitual 4-4-2 formation in favour of a 4-3-3.
With Jemerson suspended, Andrea Raggi is expected to start at centre-back.
The trip to Manchester will have special significance for Falcao, who has relocated his shooting boots after two dismal years on loan in England with Manchester United and Chelsea.
‘El Tigre’, 31, no longer bites with the force of his Porto and Atletico Madrid days, but, aided by a customised playing schedule, he has scored 22 goals in just 28 games.
“I manage him differently to the others,” says Jardim.
“Because he’s a top-level player. I said at the start of the season that I was sure he’d succeed. Quality is permanent.”
City are favourites to progress, but as PSG’s 4-0 evisceration of Barcelona last week showed, France’s top clubs are no longer content to make up the numbers in the Champions League.