After his team’s win against Napoli on Tuesday night Pep Guardiola used a word in the post-game press conference that had the Italian media tittering.
“If you think I said Napoli were a strong team just to be a paraculo, then forget it,” the Manchester City manager remarked.
It was met with the kind of laughter you’d hear from foreigners when you swear in their native language.
The word denotes a kind of insincere flattery; a paraculo might well be someone who says complimentary things about other people just to get some praise for themselves.
It’s a charge that’s been levelled against Pep throughout his career and Italian football fans were sharing examples through social media this week.
“I think it was an extraordinary game from both sides,” he continued. “We faced one of the best sides I faced in my career, probably the best. It is one of the wins I am most proud of in my career.”
Even before the game, Guardiola was describing Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli as one of the three best teams in Europe. Crucially, he declined to say where his own team would feature in such a list.
And maybe he had a point in describing his opponents as that. Napoli have won their opening eight Serie A fixtures, capitalising on a poor start from reigning champions Juventus to put themselves in an excellent early position to claim a first Scudetto since 1990.
Their system works; they are often too quick and intricate for opponents, passing their way out of trouble before raiding upfield.
But could Pep have been talking Napoli up – as he talked up Shakhtar Donetsk before the previous game in the group – in order to frame his own team in a better light?
Certainly, that is the impression that the Italians in attendance would have been left with, especially after witnessing the pasting their side got inside the opening half hour. If Napoli are one of the best teams in Europe then what the hell are Manchester City?
Napoli are a wonderfully assured side and yet were coughing the ball up time and again. They simply couldn’t get out of their own half; they were choked up.
City’s two excellent wide forwards, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, tempted the full-backs into marking wide, thereby hinting at space for David Silva and the peerless Kevin De Bruyne to occupy and wreak havoc.
There was nothing Napoli could do but close their eyes and adopt the brace position. Sarri, meanwhile, paced the side lines, helpless to alter things. City scored one goal after another. De Bruyne smashed the underside of the bar and another shot was just about scrambled off the line.
It could and should have been four, five or six by half-time and only luck kept Napoli hanging on.
There are certainly elements that Guardiola needs to tweak. If his team are not going to blow opponents out of the water early on, then he’s got to find a way to make sure City don’t gas. They threw everything they had at Napoli and it should have been enough but it wasn’t. That meant the Italians had a chink of light they really should never have seen.
They were nonetheless well-beaten. Sarri blinked first and made concessions for Guardiola before the kick-off. He didn’t implement his normal game plan. Piotr Zielinski and Amadou Diawara started instead of Jorginho and Allan.
It showed Sarri was either thinking about resting players for Inter this weekend or he was sufficiently worried about Silva and De Bruyne that he brought in a more defensively-inclined player than Jorginho in Diawara.
It was, therefore, 1-0 before a ball was kicked. That’s what Guardiola is capable of doing. Whatever Napoli had, he felt City could match. There would be no compromise, no accommodation of Napoli’s talents; his principles unaltered.
And the game left those with little doubt that he has finally got his own team where he wants them. Everything appears under control. There is flawless cohesion and teamwork but within that his players are individually a cut above.
Ederson, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Fernandinho, Silva, De Bruyne, Sterling and Sane all have legitimate reason to believe they might be the best players in their respective positions in this season’s Champions League.
Pep’s now well on the path to moulding his team to perfection. He still pays infinite respect to opponents. There even appears sometimes a jealousy in his descriptions of other teams, other managers, other players. But he knows what he has and he surely must appreciate that he’s building the best team in Europe.
No amount of kind words from this alleged paraculo can detract from that now.