SHEFFIELD, England -- Pep Guardiola says he will extend his stay at Manchester City only if he "deserves it" and his players are at least playing their part. Sheffield United were beaten 1-0 at Bramall Lane on Saturday to improve City's unbeaten run in all competitions to seven games thanks to 45 minutes of beauty and 45 minutes of brawn.
It was fitting that Kyle Walker, making his 100th league appearance for the club in his home city (and against his first club), got the goal. He has done more than most during the first few games to aid Guardiola's prospects of getting a new deal at the Etihad Stadium.
Guardiola, into his fifth season at City, is getting fed up with questions about his contract. Asked at a news conference on Friday for an update, his answer was particularly short. "I've answered many times" was the curt response before taking a swig from the water bottle on his desk to indicate the line of questioning was over.
Faced with claims that Barcelona's presidential frontrunner, Victor Font, wants to bring him back to Camp Nou, Guardiola insisted he wants to stay in Manchester beyond next summer. City want him to stay, too, but while an extension remains unsigned, there is always going to be uncertainty.
What Guardiola has done, intentionally or not, is leave his options open. His record in charge of Barcelona between 2008 and 2012 means he will always be welcome back in Catalonia -- something Font well knows -- although asked again at Bramall Lane, Guardiola said he will only ever return as a supporter. Having collected league titles in Spain, Germany and England, there has been a stream of speculation about trying his hand in Italy with a move to Juventus. Taking charge of Qatar for their home World Cup in 2022 has also been floated.
After two Premier League titles and a domestic treble, Guardiola says he will not use results to judge if he deserves to stay, but rather whether or not his team is still playing for him. The way they sliced apart Sheffield United in the first half and battled away in the second was a timely reminder that they are.
Guardiola is an intense coach and mental fatigue is understandable, but there were no signs of throwing in the towel against Sheffield United -- albeit a team struggling to come to terms with their second season back in the top flight. It's now their worst start to a campaign since 1975.
"It was a really good game," said Guardiola afterwards. "They play with a rhythm you don't control. The first half we played really well, we created a lot of chances, but we struggled to score."
By half-time, City had managed 10 shots with five on target, and only Aaron Ramsdale's intervention made it sure it was just 1-0 at the break after he made two good saves from Ferran Torres, again playing as a makeshift centre-forward. But the Sheffield United goalkeeper could do nothing about Walker's shot that arrowed into the corner from 25 yards after 28 minutes.
Guardiola said in the buildup that the England defender is playing the best football since his 2017 transfer from Tottenham, and it's hard to argue. He is certainly playing like a man who wants his boss to stay. Goals, though, remain a problem, and for the first time under Guardiola, City have failed to score more than once in four successive league games.
Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus are still sidelined, and without a recognised striker to put the game to bed, in the second half it was left to the defence to ensure there wasn't a third straight 1-1 draw away from home after stalemates at Leeds and West Ham.
Since shipping five against Leicester, City have conceded three goals in seven games, coinciding with Ruben Dias' arrival from Benfica, and they look far more durable with the Portuguese international alongside Aymeric Laporte.
"They are doing really, really well, and it is so important for us, but the reason we concede not one goal is not just them," said Guardiola. "We are delighted for what they are doing. Five games in 16 days. This charisma in the back line helps us. They had one clear chance in 90 minutes, so that is so good for us."
City have only lost once this season, but without the killer instinct of previous seasons there always remains the possibility of a sucker punch -- it's something that must change if they want their title back. Aguero and Jesus are getting fitter and Guardiola will hope to have at least one back for Liverpool's visit to the Etihad in the last fixture before the November international break.
"We arrive in the final third and we are not clinical," said Guardiola. "When you arrive in the second half at 1-0 anything can happen, especially with them being so good at second balls and having the patience for an extra pass.
"Nine goals in six games is not enough. I understand the reasons why."
There are problems for Guardiola to solve ahead of back-to-back games against Liverpool and Tottenham either side of the international break, but the commitment of his players is not one of them. While speculation about his future swirls, he can at least be satisfied they want him to stay.