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.”
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp suggested City’s Premier League dominance is such that they could be champions by January, a suggestion Guardiola has brushed aside.
“Definitely,” he said when asked if it was unrealistic. “You are English — from a long time ago, did you see a champion in January? Me neither.”
The Spaniard — who campaigned for independence for his native Catalonia — is targeting a third Champions League trophy 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.
But Maurizio Sarri’s side 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.
– ‘Nice position’ –
Sarri’s side lost 2-1 at the Etihad two weeks ago after falling to Shakhtar by the same scoreline last month.
“We know if we go to Napoli and win then we’ll have qualified,” said Manchester City’s Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne.
“That would be a nice position for us to be in and then hopefully we can get another good result against Arsenal on Sunday and put some pressure on the rest of the teams.
“It’s important just to get qualified and not about thinking about what it might mean, whether we could get a rest in the remaining group matches.
“If we are qualified, that is done. We might then have to think about finishing first or whatever but we know if we get a point or win we are qualified and so that’s our target.”
The Belgian believes both sides will show signs of fatigue after a tough campaign, with City having played 16 games this season and Napoli 12.
“We try to rest whenever there’s an opportunity and make sure we are fresh,” he said.
“For a lot of teams, it’s very hard. It’s almost November. The amount of games we’ve played and have to play is massive and there could be another 40 or 50 to go so we know what the task ahead is but we have a big squad and we can cope with the demands.”