Speaking almost apologetically to Buenos Aires based newspaper Olé following Argentina’s World Cup Qualifying loss to Paraguay on Wednesday, Sergio Agüero, scorer of 107 Premier League and 33 international goals, uttered the words of a man curiously lacking in confidence: “I sometimes feel that I’m a bad player.”
Agüero missed a 46th minute penalty in this game, his third of the season before adding to that tally in Manchester City’s 1-1 draw with Everton on Saturday. The same side, the same height, the same agitation in the run up, the same panic in his eyes as he watched Maarten Stekelenburg pat his spot kick and his team’s three points away. There was no response from Agüero this time, just a muted retreat, head slumped, into the comfort of his quiet life in Manchester.
In many ways, that’s what makes Agüero Agüero. With the ball at his feet Sergio is a predator – unmistakably one of the world’s top three forwards alongside Luis Suárez and Robert Lewandowksi, a high-voltage bundle of pace and aggression with a sniper of a right foot at the bottom of a bulging quadricep and a left to match. Off the pitch, this baby-faced, soft spoken family man couldn’t be any different, even with that new Leonidas-like beard. There’s a charm about the oxymoronic nature of Agüero’s life. City supporters like a guy who keeps himself to himself, so long as he’s being as loud as he can on the field. Agüero, responsible for the conducting the loudest chorus ever heard at the Etihad Stadium in May 2012, deserves the privacy that Manchester affords him, and he appreciates it too: “Manchester is very quiet and a calm place to live. You can go for a stroll or a walk without any problem,” read an extract from his book ‘Born To Rise, My Story’, published in 2014.
But now, even in this city where the 28-year-old is so adored, people are beginning to question the striker’s mentality ahead of City’s trip to Barcelona on Wednesday night.
It was all a bit too nicey-nice as Agüero spoke to the press: “All we can hope is that Messi has a bad day and our defence plays the game of its life”. Those are words you’d expect to hear from a three goal-a-season Scunthorpe forward playing in front of four 35-year-old part-time mechanics, not a world-class serial Golden Boot winner. It takes a lot for City fans to feel any sort of resentment towards the Argentine, but the defeatism that imbued his voice as he spoke of how wonderful his friend Messi is and how he “didn’t want to get Barcelona” in the draw was incredibly disappointing. Speaking as the figurehead of this Manchester City team that look closer than ever to reaching the level of the Catalans, Agüero should have had fire in his belly. Instead, there were cuddly toys.
For a player who boasts the best minute-per-goal rate in the Premier League and already has 11 goals in 9 games this season, Agüero’s apparent lack of awareness as to just how good he really is baffles. “Sergio is good because he’s good,” said Pep Guardiola of the striker in September, but is there a self-awareness of how good, or an understanding of how much more he can do with his ability to help the team? In the absence of captain Vincent Kompany, Agüero should be one of the senior figures rallying the troops. He is one of the most respected members of the squad – “Aguero is one of the best players in the world and I’m very proud to work and play with him,” said summer signing Nolito of his teammate upon arriving at the Etihad Stadium – but the striker can often cut a peripheral figure both on and off the pitch when the pressure mounts.
As Agüero prepares to go head-to-head with Suárez tomorrow evening – a player he often found himself in competition with when the Uruguayan played his football at Anfield, the City man must take on the combative attitude that makes the former Liverpool hitman the most feared striker in world football. With his tooth marks still imprinted in the skin of Giorgio Chiellini and the reaction of the world’s media threatening to drive a stake through his heart, Suárez, suspended for nine matches and banned for four months from any football related activity in 2014, was defiant: “Nobody can change my winning mentality”.
Compare the conciliatory words of Agüero to those of Suárez and club teammate Kevin De Bruyne, who insisted his team “do not fear” Barcelona, and you’d think you were listening to a Games Workshop manager going into a street fight with two UFC fighters. There’s a feeling among City fans that De Bruyne has surpassed Agüero as the club’s most important player; perhaps his fighting mentality, and not so much his ability, is the reason for this.
Manchester City face the team their own manager erected the foundations for and have been trying to emulate since the takeover in 2008 tomorrow, and their players must believe they have what it takes to reach Barcelona’s level if they are to finally give the La Liga champions a game after three years of trying and failing. Agüero, a player that has already been singled out as needing improvement by Guardiola, has to be one of the players leading his side into battle.