COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
From a purely footballing point of view, Manchester City will face their sternest test of the Pep Guardiola era on Tuesday. That meeting, against runaway Serie A leaders Napoli, presents a chance to answer a different kind of challenge, and arguably one which no team in the Premier League is equipped to provide.
Then again, maybe 'equipped' is not the right word, the English top flight being awash with cash, it's major – and even, to an extent, minor – clubs are happy to dive gaily into the stash at the slightest hint of trouble. It is more the case that, for all that investment, no one in England is inclined to go toe-to-toe with Manchester City in the fashion that Napoli will.
The Partenopei remain the only side with a 100 per cent record this season in Europe's major leagues, a record they kept alive by winning impressively away at Roma this past weekend. That 1-0 result represents the only time this season that Napoli have scored less than two in a game.
Seeing as there will be a more in-depth examination than ever before, one can imagine, knowing the antsy nature of the man, that Guardiola came out of the weekend's thrashing of Stoke City a lot less pleased than he let on.
It would take a level of churlishness that even he cannot muster to openly quibble at a 7-2 scoreline, but that swathe of time either side of the midway interval, within which Stoke scored twice and teased an improbable and wholly undeserved comeback, cut to the heart of a long-standing problem at the Etihad: that of defensive personnel.
That is precisely where his rival on Tuesday, Maurizio Sarri, holds an ace: Raul Albiol, formerly of Real Madrid, is perhaps not genuinely top class, but his partner is. Senegal international Kalidou Koulibaly has grown in stature (not literally, of course, being a veritable mountain already) under Sarri, showing off an unflappable nature in possession, keen distribution and a clean proficiency in duels.
His ability to perform in such a wide range of areas is perhaps suggestive of the major difference between both sides: a sense of possibility.
Whereas Guardiola has recruited John Stones at considerable expense – a defender who, despite improvements, we are told should not be judged on his defence – and pairs him with Nicolas Otamendi – who is solid but seems to feel a caution is all in a day's work – Sarri's side seems to suggest a more excellent way, one based around incremental gains gotten on the training ground.
Now in his third year, and second under the studious Neapolitan tobacco enthusiast, Koulibaly is precisely the sort of central defender that Guardiola would and should probably have looked at.
His numbers this season stack up very well against Otamendi, for instance: he's been directly involved (goal or assist) in three goals as against the Argentine's one, is averaging more key passes per game (0.5 to 0.1), winning more tackles per game (2.4 to 1.8) and completing an even greater proportion of passes.
The fact that he cost £7 million to acquire from Genk, considering the sort of fee that City paid out for John Stones, makes his development even sweeter. This is the sort of freakish talent, a two-way defender, it was suggested, that could only be acquired by eye-watering sums.
Of course, that is not to say Stones cannot attain an even higher level. However, with him, Guardiola is wrestling with the exact opposite transformation which Sarri has managed, trying to teach a ball player how to defend. He has form in this regard, of course, having done the same with Bayern Munich's Jerome Boateng.
However, there seems little he can do to temper Otamendi's wild tendencies, and for all the dizzying whirring and petrifying revving of their almost circus-like front line, it is telling that when fit Vincent Kompany remains an option in this City side.
That is, evidently, still the chink, the Achilles' heel of a relentless attacking machine.
It might ultimately not even matter, especially if they keep hammering seven past teams. However, logic and regression to the mean would seem to suggest such a model is unsustainable.
On Saturday, Manchester City reached out for perfection, and they may yet do so again on Tuesday. Still though, a player of Koulibaly's talents and in his mould would arguably represent a quantum leap for Guardiola's dancing lights. The allure of perfection is of course that it is unattainable, but few will take City as close.