At last, at last a tantalising view of the Premier League pops up before us. FIFA’s restructuring of how world football’s governing body wishes us to consume our International football means that this has been the third international break of the season so far and we are only in mid-November.
This has meant a truncated start to the domestic season, where a glance at the league table shows that only 11 games have been completed. For those clubs at the bottom of the table and those that are busy switching managers after a poor start, it will have offered a buffer to get their respective ships in order, but for the likes of Manchester City, storming ahead at the top of the table and in imperious form, it can only be a hindrance.
City’s form going into the last break had been mouth-wateringly good, consistent too, with only a single point dropped in the league so far, astonishingly to an Everton side that has turned out to be a soft touch for everyone else they have played this season. Everton are ironically one of those sides now taking a breather after separating from ex-manager Ronald Koeman. How quickly football turns things around.
Wolves remain the only other side to actually stop City winning this season and even their efforts went west in a League Cup penalty shootout.
City have been so rampant, few have even come close to stopping their flow, with four goals put past Feyenoord and Napoli (both away from home) in the Champions League, five past Liverpool and Crystal Palace, six past Watford on their own Vicarage Road pitch and seven past a completely bamboozled Stoke City. Arguably one of the most effective performances so far, however, came at Stamford Bridge where champions Chelsea had no answers to City’s power play and a morale-boosting win was secured. It may have been one of the few matches so far that did not bring with it an avalanche of City goals, but in its own way, it was indicative of the steel and resolve introduced by Pep Guardiola this season.
That steel and resolve will have been tested in a different way by the gaping void of the international break: will City simply resume where they left off and swarm all over Leicester this weekend at the King Power Stadium or will it take them time to re-find that shimmering, effortless rhythm which has carried them clear of the pack at this relatively early stage?
Although they have been playing as if this fluid beauty is the easiest thing in the world to conjure, clearly it is not. It is a sobering experience — once you have seen City’s interpretation of how the game should be played — to take in another top-flight game and see how the teams deal with simple acts like feeding the ball out from the back and involving the goalkeeper in retention and circulation of ball possession.
Suddenly, you are aware that you are almost watching a different sport.
Looking more closely at City’s incredible progress, there may be a chink of light for the chasing pack, however. In the last three games before the international break, City may have won all three, but five goals were conceded, two each against West Brom and Napoli and one at home to Arsenal. While the Napoli game can be excused as City were being put under serious pressure by Italy’s best side this season. Against Arsenal, the opposition were afforded a foothold at the Etihad, but again City had just returned from Naples and were playing a practically unchanged side, while the visitors had changed their entire side from their own midweek European excursions. Barring a couple of freak goals at the Hawthorns then, it turns out that this is possibly not the offering of hope the likes of Manchester United and Tottenham are waiting for.
So, where does the hope lie for the chasing pack? Complacency? Loss of form? Loss of momentum? Injuries? As it stands, City are looking good to arrive at the end of the year in pristine condition. Worse news still for the others, with Leicester, Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham up next in the Premier League. With that run of games, by the time City face Manchester United at Old Trafford on Dec. 10, their record-breaking eight-point lead may have stretched even further.
With Champions League knockout round qualification already ensured in record time, City can begin to manage their season with a comfortable buffer between them and the rest.
As we welcome the Premier League action back into our lives this weekend, all eyes will be on City’s progress at Leicester for clues as to what we are in for next. Hope may spring eternal for the opposition, but with games flowing fast and furious between now and the turn of the year, City have every chance of strengthening their grip on proceedings even further in the next month and a half.