Neil Humphreys: Don't do crazy title talk, Pep
City know race isn't over - until Manchester Derby
If Pep Guardiola looked like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, he sounded like Pinocchio.
A heavy cold left him with a runny nose, but his imagination was running away with him. He was telling a little white lie.
The Manchester City manager insisted that any talk of his side retaining the English Premier League title was "crazy", even after their 4-1 stroll at Burnley yesterday morning (Singapore time).
"The title is over," he lied, as his reddening nose seemed to grow slightly longer.
The Spaniard should consider himself fortunate that his abilities on the training ground are well regarded because he's less convincing with the mind games.
The title race isn't over. Of course it isn't. If City stumble in the Manchester Derby at the Etihad on Sunday morning, then it's over.
Until then, Guardiola entertains us with his attempts at misdirection, which have as much subtlety as an old uncle pretending to pull a coin from a child's ear.
He's not fooling anyone. At press time, the distance between Liverpool and City was eight points. Even if the gap has stretched to 11 points by the Manchester Derby, it still isn't insurmountable, not in December.
Moreover, Guardiola's comments were drenched in heavy sarcasm, mocking the media, again, for suggesting that City's title hopes had faded after the disappointing draw at Newcastle.
The champions overcame a significant deficit last season to overhaul the Reds and perhaps Guardiola's brusque response was also aimed at Juergen Klopp.
Like teenagers trying to burn each other with caustic comebacks, Guardiola is practically goading his German counterpart and saying: "Yeah, the title is totally over, Klopp. I mean, it's not like we didn't close the gap last season, is it?"
Again, no one claims the mind games are subtle. If anything, Guardiola comes across as petulant, which isn't the ideal look after a 4-1 victory.
But the City manager needs to get his petty digs in early. He knows what's coming. Anything other than a victory in the Manchester Derby is unthinkable.
He can't lose, not against that lot, not when the Red Devils are displaying less consistency than yesterday's curry sauce.
Indeed, the apparent inconsistency of Guardiola's post-match comments isn't a coincidence either. After stating that it's "crazy" to ponder a successful title defence, he implored the fans to be in fine voice at the Etihad.
He knows it isn't over, until a full house sings. Or doesn't sing. A subdued Etihad means a stumble in the Manchester Derby and the end of a title charge.
Not mathematically, obviously, but the repercussions of a United humbling would extend beyond Christmas, replacing the festive cheer with something much gloomier.
Guardiola craves momentum, with seven more games to come this month. He needs the 12th man, a raucous atmosphere and a decisive victory. Otherwise, the Etihad will deflate like the Big Top when the circus leaves town.
So he's deliberately downplaying title expectations whilst calling upon players and punters alike to rise to the occasion in the Manchester Derby. It's an old trick, perhaps, but the only one to play at this juncture.
City improved at Burnley without really inspiring. Gabriel Jesus scored twice to take a significant step towards his eventual goal of replacing Sergio Aguero.
While Rodri commanded central midfield to prove that he's ready to replace Fernandinho now, which is handy, as no one else appears willing or able to replace Fernandinho in central defence.
The 34-year-old stop-gap had little to do alongside Nicolas Otamendi, as the pair were essentially given the night off by the cautious Clarets.
And still, City shipped a last-minute goal, stretching their unwanted run of conceding at least once to eight games.
But Kevin de Bruyne's dominant display, alongside an elegant Bernardo Silva and the relentless Rodri, carried the visitors along. They are expected to do so again against United. That would be the natural order of things.
But it's been an unnatural campaign for City. Average at Liverpool, better against Chelsea, average at Newcastle, better at Burnley, the law of those averages would indicate another mediocre showing in the derby.
The Red Devils will surely revel in their unlikely role as agents of chaos, laying down banana skins in the hope of ruining their enemies' Christmas.
Right now, Guardiola's crazy talk about the title race being over can be dismissed for what it is, a silly distraction and a bit of joke.
But the joke won't be funny if City fail to win the derby. It'll be a reality.
* Does not include this morning's results