Manchester City set for heavyweight Luton fight after ‘punch in the face’

<span>Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Action Images/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Action Images/Reuters

Sometimes, according to Pep Guardiola, “you need a punch in the face” to see how you react. Manchester City have received a metaphorical blow after four games without a win in the Premier League to derail their challenge for a fourth successive title. There is no shame in drawing against Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham, nor losing to a fantastic Aston Villa side away, but this will be the month when City’s desire is truly tested.

They begin a run of winnable games at Luton on Sunday and then, across the next 10 matches, go on to meet eight teams that began the weekend in the bottom half of the table. Given those fixtures, there is every chance City could enjoy three months of accumulating points after a difficult period. Guardiola has previously led City to a 21-game winning streak, so will not be intimidated by what lies ahead if he is to get his team back on track.

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City’s form has dipped of late: they failed to hold on to three leads as opponents scored late equalisers, while they were outplayed at Villa Park, mustering a pitiful two shots in 90 minutes. “There is always that tendency when we lose games to ask about whether we are hungry, the consistency, is there complacency? I do not believe that for one second,” Guardiola says.

“For me as a manager I don’t say: ‘We lose games because you don’t run, you don’t fight, you are complacent, you don’t have character’ – it’s too simplistic. There are many other reasons. If that happens I have a real problem – I was not able to make them feel alive in a football game to do it.

“I have said many times that I have never found a football player that when they go out on the pitch they don’t want to do well, they don’t want to fight, they don’t want to run, they don’t want to be positive for the team. I have never found a player like that. They don’t want to play in front of 60,000 people and play bad. There is not one person in the world that wants that to happen.”

Thankfully for City there will only be 15,000 baying for their blood at Kenilworth Road, where they will be expecting to reignite their season against a team that are likely relegation candidates.

Liverpool and Arsenal will testify as to how difficult it is to visit Luton because of the atmosphere and surroundings. Rob Edwards’s team’s quality will test City’s character. The Hatters have proven adept against any side not at their best. “If we are to win at Luton, we have to be incredible, happy and realise how difficult it is,” Guardiola says.

Rodri will be back in central midfield, adding the assurance Guardiola requires because without his compatriot in the Premier League, City have often fallen short. They are yet to replace Ilkay Gündogan, while Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes are still finding their feet. Rodri was absent for City’s past five league defeats, his absence keenly felt as was clearly the case at Villa Park, where City were often overrun. Numerous combinations have been tried, but without reaching the standards required for a team challenging for the title.

“Sometimes after winning you want to try to do extra but you don’t do it because you have won a lot,” Guardiola says. “You need a punch in the face. You need it. Now let’s see [what happens next]. Will we be able to cope with the next situation? I don’t know what will happen … even after we have won 12 games in a row. I don’t know how the players will react, but that is the challenge.

“I need to find the right words, the right training, the right selections, the right way to play, because I am the boss and I have to help them. They need me and I have to be there. That’s why it’s a challenge for me and I needed that, too.

“Maybe the complacency was the manager, not the players. Why not? I have to react myself; four games without a win, that has never happened before. I have done something wrong, I don’t know what, but I have done something wrong.”

City rarely need to deal with adversity, but early in December is not a bad moment in which to suffer. There is time to rectify what has gone wrong; City are the kings of building momentum and have the perfect opportunity to do so.

Kenilworth Road hosted Barry McGuigan’s 1986 super-featherweight demolition of Francisco Tomas da Cruz, so the old ground is no stranger to compelling bouts, but knockout blows are a rarity in the Premier League. The title is eventually won on points by the strongest fighter after 38 rounds. Guardiola is meticulous with his tactics but they are not delivering results right now and, as Mike Tyson will tell you, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. Now it is time for City’s response because Luton are capable of putting them on the canvas.