Guardiola's season has finally started
Injuries have restricted the amount of rotation Pep Guardiola has been able to achieve so far this season with his Manchester City squad. The Champions League win over Olympiacos was the first real example of the manager really resting his big guns and giving some fringe players a chance to impress. There was no Aymeric Laporte, Kyle Walker or Kevin De Bruyne, while John Stones and Benjamin Mendy were included with a challenge to show why they deserve to be starting more often.
With players finally returning from injury, it looks like there is now an opportunity to fully utilise the amount of world class options available. Now qualification is secure, he will be able to use those fringe players more often in the next month or so, with some favourable Premier League fixtures coming up, too.
Guardiola has previously referred to the opening games of City's season as their makeshift pre-season, as players get fit and available. Now, with a mostly fit squad finally available, the season has started and he can see what is possible with all of his options available.
Rising to the challenge
With no Kevin De Bruyne, Guardiola will have been looking to his other midfielders to provide the attacking impetus from midfield. After a bright start, City were in danger of getting stuck in a scrappy game, but a ball forward to Gabriel Jesus saw the striker hold the ball up well, feed the run from Raheem Sterling, whose sublime backheel was into the path of Phil Foden to finish expertly. It wasn't just a good goal, but was exactly the kind of response Guardiola will have expected from his players.
It was the kind of movement City have been lacking this season, being patient until the space opened up and taking advantage with devastating force. The Blues have found it difficult infront of goal in the league, but have had no such trouble in Europe, and Foden's goal was a glimpse that the old City is still there.
Frank-like running from Phil
Phil Foden's late run into the box to score the opener was not a new trait for the youngster. Instead, he's starting to make a trademark of those well-timed runs and finishes - just like he has with those low, long-range drives into the bottom corner with his left foot.
It's not dissimilar to the kind of midfield play from Frank Lampard, who made a career of sweeping home a break or a cut-back. Foden might have operated from the wide positions for most of the game at Olympiacos, but he has that positional awareness to drift inside when the space opens up. Maybe that's Foden's long-term role in this City team, rather than playing on the wing.
He has been forever billed as an heir to David Silva, but in Lampard, perhaps Foden's game is starting to reflect another former City midfielder.
Problems still remain
City had 21 shots in Greece, with 10 on target. But only one goal to show for their efforts.
In their 14 games this season, they've now failed to score more than once in half of them - with all of those occasions coming in the last ten games. This was another example of wasteful shooting and a failure to make their dominance count.
Ultimately, though, City were always in control of this game, and did what they needed to in order to keep Olympiacos at arms-length and secure passage to the next round. It would have been a perfect chance to score some goals to restore confidence, and the fact that they didn't will be a concern. But looking back, this was as one-sided a 1-0 win as City will have played in some time. The goals will come.
With qualification through to the last-16 secured with this result, Guardiola now has something he targeted from the moment the group stage draw was made. Qualifying as soon as possible was always the aim, so to do so with two games spare is crucial for City, especially with some important Premier League games coming up.
Aside from a derby with United, City's next six games in the league up to Boxing Day are a perfect opportunity to build up a winning run to try and close the ground on the top of the table. Now, for the next three of those games at least, Guardiola has an opportunity to rest and rotate his key men in the two remaining Champions League games that fall between the league schedule.
Guardiola cited fatigue as the reason for Kyle Walker and Kevin De Bruyne's rests, so he now has two further opportunities to give any similarly tired players a rest going into December. Add the return of three more key players from injury, and this was a successful, if unspectacular, trip to Athens.