Pep Guardiola has challenged his Manchester City players to show him what they are capable of in their final three Premier League fixtures before the World Cup, as he named two rivals who could challenge them in the second part of the season.
City are second in the table ahead of the trip to Leicester and can leapfrog leaders Arsenal with a win on Saturday – although the Gunners can return to first place if they beat Nottingham Forest on Sunday. After that comes winnable fixtures against Fulham and Brentford, with Guardiola saying the next three results could define City’s season.
And to illustrate his point, Guardiola said Manchester United are “finally” back and capable of sticking around in the top four, as are Newcastle, who are enjoying a fine season under Eddie Howe.
Guardiola discussed the change in attitude from the last time he tried to lead City to three titles in succession, saying he has noticed a significant improvement in the mentality of his players this time around.
“I’m satisfied but there is one team that has been better. Today Arsenal would be champion,” he said.
“In general coming from back-to-back, expectations coming from where we are after previous back-to-back was really really poor. This season is completely opposite. This part of the season is completely different, qualifying for the Champions League [last-16] was the target. How many incredible top teams are out of the Champions League already, one game left to decide everything. This is the most important thing.
“Then the league is to be there, we knew it’s not going to be decided before the World Cup. It’s never decided in October, November. Of course it’s important to finish as high as possible in the table. We have three games in our hands, points to play. Have the feeling these three games will say a lot about our… not future, but about what we want to do in the Premier League this season.”
Expanding on what exactly he has noticed in training this season, Guardiola said the main difference between this campaign and the 2019/20 season is the focus from the start.
“Training sessions were not as much high, performances were not good, we drop points,” he said. “In that period Liverpool were unstoppable and made 99 points. In the first 10 games you dont win the Premier League, but you can be behind.
Look now Newcastle, another part already there. I saw against Spurs was magnificent both sides. I saw the physicality that we faced in the third game of the season. Imagine this team with one game a week, no Europe, this team can be a contender to be there.
“The manager, Eddie, their new players, the way they played. Brave, go to Spurs, the central defenders were man-to-man vs Kane, Son, no problem. A good quality in many things. I saw this season when we were in the States, I said I like what I see. Many details in the team, signals, arrive on time, when changing exercises how good they are, how focussed when you talk to them if they look at you or the grass. Many details are there.
“That’s why I say you are a genius guys, you are still there. You could be thinking okay back-to-back, just focus on the Champions League, now I’ve won already four Premier Leagues but have to play more. It’s completely the opposite. That’s why we are there.
“I have the feeling United are coming back, finally United is coming back. I’ve seen it on Thursday, against Chelsea the first half. I said I like what I see of United right now. There will be a lot of teams like United fighting for there. That’s why you have to fight to qualify for the Champions League and fight for the title.”