If ever a game is destined to finish in a goalless stalemate it is Manchester City’s hosting of Napoli tonight. In fact, it would probably be a wise decision to give the fixture a complete swerve and instead enjoy Spurs or Liverpool’s Champions League endeavours; even Billericay’s FA Cup qualifying fourth round replay with Brackley Town if you’re that way inclined. Anything but the incident-free snooze-fest that the present leaders of the Premier League and Serie A will surely churn out to everyone’s visceral disappointment at the Etihad.
Don’t believe me? Then consider the evidence.
Twelve months of extensive remodelling under Pep Guardiola has engineered a quite extraordinary side in east Manchester that is accumulating goals with such stylish abandon it is necessary to trawl all the way back to the first few pages of the history books to find parallels. The last occasion a team put 29 away in their opening eight league games was Everton in 1895. On route to this remarkable early milestone they have run up cricket scores against Liverpool, Watford, Crystal Palace and Stoke while playing a level of unbeatable football that bewitches and exhilarates in equal measure. Indeed they have been so bewitching and exhilarating that they have created a paradox in that with only eight weeks gone it feels far too early to offer up any dramatic comparisons or grandiose declarations for De Bruyne and co yet so sublime have they been it also feels too late to make them. It would be like stating the obvious. Let’s just say City have been box-office.
Dominance is commonplace in any league but seldom are we blessed with the emergence of it that places such emphasis on scenic attack. We should truly count our blessings then that this rare phenomenon is occurring twice-over, not only on English pitches but in Italy too, a country so traditionally aligned with sporting caution. In the southern reaches of the peninsula, Napoli – melded into potential greatness by former-banker-cum-coach Maurizio Sarri – are similarly tearing all-comers apart this season with a feverish high-press and fluid, intoxicating adventure. Their eight perfect results have harvested 26 goals which already puts them on course to surpass last term’s prolific 94, a figure usually reserved for champions but which brought them only third spot after conceding too many at the back. Now, like City, their defensive vulnerabilities have been addressed and with Dries Mertens rejuvenated and repositioned up front combining devastatingly with Cellejon and Lorenzo Insigne they have a multifarious threat that has seen them twice return victorious from trips to the capital while spanking anyone else who dares encounter them. From the campaign’s get-go the football served up has been breathless and thrilling and prompted even the most pessimistic of souls beyond Turin to believe that come May, for the first time in seven years, Juventus will not be crowned campione. Let’s just say Napoli have been box-office.
This Tuesday evening then heralds a match-up between the two most attack-minded, brilliant and goal-feasting sides across all of Europe, arguably the world. Each has an average of goals-per-game that exceeds three. Each boasts a shots-per-game average that nudges the twenty mark. Oh and for the superstitious among us this classic in the making will be officiated by Antonio Miguel Lahoz who last reffed Manchester City when they participated in the ridiculous 5-3 thriller at home to Monaco earlier this year.
If all of this doesn’t start to ring alarm bells then welcome to football, please have a seat and your induction video will begin shortly. As for the rest of us we know from bitter experience that the more highly anticipated the game the greater its chances of falling far short of the hype; succumbing to chess-like ennui with chances at a premium. Fate seems to take a perverse delight in doing that: confounding expectations and going against type.
Unless of course fate’s bluff is called. Maybe an intrepid writer who is willing to fall on his pen and declare with utter certainty that the so far incredible Manchester City butting heads with the so far amazing Napoli will not result in a game for the ages. It will instead be drab, disappointing and ordinary; so drab in fact that you’ll believe that Jose Mourinho is installed in both dug-outs.
Tune in for Spurs or Liverpool instead. You have my word.