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18 Jul 2018

Man City & Chelsea: Guardiola vs Sarri could be a Premier League rivalry for the ages

Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley

When Manchester City met Napoli in the Champions League last season, Pep Guardiola was effusive in his praise. 

"They are one of best teams I ever faced as a professional," he said after a 2-1 win at the Etihad. Napoli had made them work, and they did so again at the San Paolo in the reverse fixture. Manchester City, though, again prevailed: this time with a 4-2 victory.

Again, Guardiola was complimentary. "Beating Napoli twice in two weeks is an incredible achievement," he said. "I am so proud because I know the side we beat. I am in love with Napoli, with the way they make short passes."

Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley 

That stemmed from Maurizio Sarri, the coach who had forged a Napoli team in his image. A side who pressed with vigour and passed with purpose, they appeared one of the few teams last season capable of competing with Manchester City without reverting to a cautious, defensive setup.

"Two teams with the same idea: high pressing, win the ball, short passes, dynamic in front," said Guardiola. "I am very pleased to face one of the coaches I admire the most." Sarri reciprocated. “We’re talking about an absolute level. We’re talking about one of those coaches who changed the way we see football," he said.

Soon after their meeting at the Etihad, Guardiola and Sarri had dinner together in Milano Marittima. They were joined by Arrigo Sacchi, the great former Milan coach, and discussed ideas and tactics.

The love-in, though, may not continue for much longer. Guardiola and Sarri are now domestic rivals in the most intense of divisions: the Premier League. The combativeness of the English top flight, the circus that constantly surrounds it, can erode even the most mutually respectful of relationships. 

Both are coaches with similar principles: they preach the importance of innovation, of purism. They are the antithesis of coaches like Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone. In that sense, there will be no ideological dispute. 

Photo credit: Thomas Rodenbücher 

But should Guardiola and Sarri find themselves as direct rivals in the Premier League title race next season—a scenario that does not seem unlikely—the relationship between two intense, highly intelligent men could grow to become one of English football's most fascinating.

Certainly, the games between Manchester City and Chelsea next season promise to be thrilling. Tactical analysts will already be drooling at the prospect. There will be goals and fluid movement and creative positional play. There will be gesticulation from the sidelines. Both men will pace up and down their technical areas: Sarri irascible and Guardiola fidgety.

It is, perhaps, the Premier League's greatest selling point ahead of the new season. Where once the new arrivals of high profile players for extortionate sums of money primarily attracted viewers, now it is the emerging coaches: with their idiosyncrasies, their unorthodox ideas and endlessly quotable press conferences.

Sarri is himself looking forward to the prospect. "It will be for me very exciting to play against Guardiola, Pochettino, Mourinho, Klopp and the others," he said. 

Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley 

When Guardiola was coaching Barcelona and hitting the heights of La Liga and Champions League success, Sarri had yet to reach Italy's top flight. He was at Alessandria and then Sorrento, an unknown coach with big ideas but little in the way of reputation. Not until 2014 did Sarri coach in Serie A. He was, by then, in his mid-50s and had guided Empoli to promotion from the second tier.

Sarri could scarcely have imagined what would later be in store. It was only in 2002 that he quit his job as a banker—he had coached amateur clubs part-time — to become a full-time manager. Now, after success with Napoli, he is to join the managerial elite in the Premier League. 

He will, after such a long road to the top, be considered Guardiola's equal, his rival. That, in itself, is some achievement.