180 minutes & a Guardiola endorsement hint Kevin Muscat’s next step is inevitable

There was a great sense of satisfaction from Kevin Muscat after his Yokohama F.Marinos almost upstaged UEFA Champions League winners and Premier League champions Manchester City in an entertaining showdown.

J1 League champions F.Marinos showed they can match it with the world’s best after going down 5-3 to Pep Guardiola’s treble-winning City in Tokyo on Sunday night – four days on from their wild 6-4 victory over Scottish champions Celtic.

“It was a tough match tonight,” Muscat told reporters. “We faced a great team and a great coach, but I think our players played really well and I am proud of them. 

“Sometimes in life you have to make decisions, and you make decisions to protect who you are, to protect your identity, or you do something different because it’s easier.

And tonight, the guys protected the Marinos identity with a great deal of honour, a great deal of courage.

“There’s options to do things easily and sit back so they have less opportunity to play through, you can sit back so there’s less space. … (But) we chose to work on things tonight that’s going to help us in the remainder of the season.”

Much of the build-up to the clash in Japan had been centred around Guardiola’s praise of Muscat’s F.Marinos and their brand of football under the A-Leagues legend, who guided the club to the title last season and they’re right in the hunt to defend their crown.

“I say wow,” Guardiola said of F.Marinos with Muscat at the helm.

“They are dynamic in their process, the build-up, everything they do. I like it.”

The two managers shared a moment pre-game and playing a high-octane and entertaining brand of attacking football, F.Marinos did not disappoint in front of a huge crowd as they raced out to a 2-0 lead inside 37 minutes.

The J1 League’s leading scorer Anderson Lopes opening the scoring in the 27th minute before Ken Matsubara doubled the lead 10 minutes later.

City, though, rallied with two goals in three minutes to head into half-time on level scores.

After the break, Erling Haaland came off the bench to score twice as City held on to see of F.Marinos, who threatened a comeback when Kanta Inoue pulled a goal back in the 86th minute.

“We didn’t think of this match as just a friendly match. I wanted to use this match well to prepare for the remaining 13 league matches, and how I should learn and grow during this break,” Muscat added.

“Of course, we respect Celtic and Manchester City, but no matter who the opponent is in any situation, we will play our football now. Of course there was a lot of learning in these two games. I think we learned a lot from the scenes where we conceded goals and the scenes where we scored.”

As for Guardiola, he said: “It was a good test for us because we don’t have enough preparation and Yokohama played really well on the transitions.

“It was good for us. Many things we can improve of course, and no one is injured, which is the most important thing. Now we rest and prepare for Bayern Munich.”

So what does it mean for Muscat?

In the space of four days, F.Marinos put six goals past Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic and scored three against the best team on the planet, having led 2-0 in Japan’s capital.

But it’s not just the goals and scoreline, but the manner of the performances.

As Guardiola highlighted, F.Marinos are quick in transition and aggressive in their press. They stayed true to their identity, despite the opposition.

As fans have seen domestically in Japan, F.Marinos have led the way since conquering the J1 League last season – Muscat becoming just the second Australian after Ange Postecoglou to win the league.

But these matches have showcased Muscat’s football to the uninitiated and the world. It’s what Postecoglou experienced when Guardiola and City visited Japan four years ago.

Postecoglou’s football was lauded by Guardiola and former star Raheem Sterling in a 3-1 loss for F.Marinos.

The match had a lasting impression and the Australian trailblazer went on to coach Celtic and lead the powerhouse to a domestic treble last season. Now he is in charge of Premier League giants Tottenham.

Muscat’s stocks are continuing to rise thanks to his work in Yokohama.

The Marinos were decimated by key departures in the off-season – 2022 J1 League MVP Tomoki Iwata (to Celtic), star winger Teruhito Nakagawa (FC Tokyo), first-choice goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka (Vancouver Whitecaps) and Leo Ceara (Cerezo Osaka).

And the season prior, the Yokohama-based club lost 2021 Golden Boot winner Daizen Maeda (Celtic), title-winning centre-back Thiago Martins (New York City FC), Keita Endo (Union Berlin), Ado Onaiwu (Toulouse) and Theerathon Bunmathan (Buriram United).

But it is all part of the Marinos model as they look to unearth the next gem. This is not a club, even with City Football Group (CFG) investment, with the same financial muscle as the likes of Urawa Reds, Vissel Kobe, Kawasaki Frontale and Nagoya Grampus.

Unable to provide a financial windfall for players, unlike Japan’s powerhouses, the Marinos do offer an exciting brand of football but also an environment to flourish and a platform to Europe.

And already this season, they have the Japanese Super Cup in hand. Muscat – a champion in the Isuzu UTE A-League with Melbourne Victory – became the first coach in Marinos history to win the annual match – pitting the J1 League champions against the Emperor’s Cup holders.

It may be not be long before Muscat is coaching in Europe.