OLIVER HOLT: It's too early to acclaim City as the greatest

OLIVER HOLT: It’s too early to acclaim Man City as the greatest English side – they need to beat Inter in Istanbul first – but should they do so, then they might be on their way

  • It is too early to label Pep Guardiola’s Man City as the greatest English side
  • While they humbled the mighty Real Madrid, they haven’t conquered Europe yet
  • Guardiola’s men appear to be a side who are just beginning to hit their stride 

It was the totality of Manchester City’s domination of Real Madrid on Wednesday night that was so startling. It has been called a masterclass but it was more humbling than a masterclass. It was more like a school detention.

Some of the best players in the world, two Ballon d’Or winners among them, were told to sit down and shut up and watch how the grown-ups did it. And they had no choice but to obey. And they remained mute while City put on a stunning exhibition of football.

It is easy to dismiss Madrid now and say their players have grown old together but that is not true. Vinicius Junior was being widely hailed as the best player in the world after the first leg last week. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are still two of the most technically gifted midfielders on the planet.

And yet, in the first half, none of them could get a kick. City either kept the ball too well or won it back too well. However technically gifted Modric and Kroos are, City’s pressing was just too clever, too urgent and too well organised.

When City had the ball, they were equally devastating. Bernardo Silva was a blur of intelligent movement, Jack Grealish tormented the Madrid defence every time he had the ball, John Stones looked like the most technically accomplished player on the pitch, Kyle Walker put Vinicius in his back pocket and kept him there.

It is too early to label Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City as the greatest English side ever

Guardiola’s men appear to be a side who are just beginning to hit their peak 

To be inside the Etihad on Wednesday night was to be in awe of what City were doing. Madrid are the Champions League holders and yet City were manifestly on a different level from them. They were so good, it was easy to feel embarrassed for Carlo Ancelotti’s side. 

It is right to reach for superlatives, given the magnitude of the occasion and the beauty of City’s football but it is also reasonable to be wary of falling into the trap of acclaiming a performance as the best we have seen just because it is the most recent and its brilliance is fresh in our minds.

The best performance by an English team in Europe that I have witnessed live was Manchester United’s 3-2 victory over Juventus in Turin in 1999, also a Champions League semi-final second leg.

Roy Keane’s performance, especially after a booking that meant he would miss the final, was the best individual display I have seen by a player for an English team in European competition.

Steven Gerrard’s performance in the 2005 final for Liverpool against AC Milan runs it close. And I would put Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Barcelona and Lionel Messi at Anfield in 2019 to overhaul a 3-0 first-leg deficit at least on a par with what City did to Madrid, too.

The point is it was a privilege to watch them all and the fact we are talking about City’s dismantling of Madrid in the same breath shows just what a stellar show Pep Guardiola’s team put on.

It would be a stretch to say they’re better than the Liverpool team of the late 70s and early 80s

There will be debates, too, about whether City are entitled to be called the best English team ever. The answer to that is more simple. Not yet. Let’s wait until they have actually won the Champions League. Let’s wait to see if they beat Inter Milan in Istanbul on June 10. 

Even if that happens, it would be a stretch to say they are better than the Liverpool team of the late 1970s and early 1980s that featured Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen. Those three won the European Cup three times in seven years with Liverpool and dominated at home, too.

And what about the United team of 1998-99? They were dominant at home and won the Treble, too. And it is a bold claim to say City are better than the United side of the late 60s, a side that featured George Best, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Nobby Stiles and became the first English side to win the European Cup in 1968.

There are other caveats. City are a club now owned by a repressive state, Abu Dhabi, and bankrolled by that state, a situation that many feel stains the game and stains the Premier League, just as Saudi Arabia’s ownership of Newcastle United does.

Manchester United’s team of 1998-99 were dominant at home and won the Treble, too

This is a club that is facing 115 Premier League charges for alleged breaches of Financial Fair Play rules. City are contesting those vigorously and maintain their innocence but if they are found guilty, it will change everything.

So let’s wait. This City team fashioned by Guardiola appear to be a side who are just beginning to hit their stride. If Wednesday night was anything to go by, City will sweep Inter aside on June 10 and it will be just the first of many Champions League trophies.

There is no sense that what we are seeing at City on the pitch is the end of something. It feels more like the start.

And in a couple of years, if City keep doing what they did to Madrid, if they keep playing with the majesty of Wednesday night, if they win the Champions League once and then win it again, then the arguments that this is the best English team we have seen will gain more and more legitimacy.

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