Pep Guardiola takes his swaggering Manchester City side to the home of Italian league leaders Napoli on Wednesday knowing a win will guarantee qualification for the Champions League knockout stages with two games to spare.
City, unbeaten this season, notched an eighth straight Premier League win on Saturday that keeps them five points clear of nearest challengers Manchester United.
Guardiola’s free-scoring side have won 13 games in a row in all competitions and are unbeaten in their past 21 outings — two new club records.
They are riding high at the top of Champions League Group F with three wins from three, knowing victory against Napoli would see them qualify for the knockout round.
But Guardiola remains wary of the Neapolitans — third in the group behind City and Shakhtar Donetsk — with Belgian Dries Mertens catching the eye up front this season.
“We need one more win to qualify but we are going to the team that are leading Serie A and everybody knows the type of football they play in their own stadium so it’s going to be very difficult,” said the City boss.
“But it’s a great opportunity for us to book our place and we’re going to try our best to do it.”
The Spaniard — who campaigned for independence for his native Catalonia — is targeting a third Champions League trophy after wins in 2009 and 2011 at the helm of Barcelona. He failed to progress beyond the semi-finals during his three-year spell at Bayern Munich.
Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli have been similarly dominant in Italy this season, where they are unbeaten in 11 league games — including 10 wins — as they chase a first Serie A title since the golden days of Diego Maradona in 1990.
But Sarri remains realistic of the challenge ahead at their San Paolo Stadium against a side led by former FIFA coach of the year Guardiola.
“Manchester City are the best team in Europe coached by the best coach in Europe,” said Sarri. “Guardiola has a brilliant football philosophy, but no team is unbeatable.”
-‘Mythical figure’ –
Napoli lost 2-1 at the Etihad two weeks ago after falling to Shakhtar by the same scoreline last month and need to win on Wednesday.
“I can’t compare myself to him (Guardiola), a mythical figure and the best coach in the world at this time.
“I like his football philosophy, the idea that his teams have to go out always with the ball, their unique speed and great movements that are at the brink of the genius.
“We’re talking about an absolute level, we’re talking about one of those coaches who changed the way we see football.
“They deserve great credit for what they did in the first match, no-one has escaped our pressing like that.”
Sarri said he was looking at second place in their group, adding: “We have to get into the game right away, we can create chances but we’ll need to play an extraordinary defensive match.”
And Spanish forward Jose Callejon warned that Napoli “don’t fear anyone”.
“Manchester City have a wonderful playing philosophy, but Sarri has given us a winning mentality,” he said.
“We knew they were strong before, even more so after we played them. We need to go onto the pitch with that mentality, knowing it’s an important game and we’re playing for the group.”