Ask people who Manchester City’s best player so far this season has been, and the vast majority would answer with Sergio Aguero. While Fernandinho, the other main candidate for that accolade, quietly goes about his midfield business in an unassuming manner, Aguero has been scoring exceptional goals—19 in 20 games already—and, quite rightly, grabbing the headlines.
He’s been in remarkable form—the best of his City career to date—but now finds himself sidelined for the next four to eight weeks with a calf injury (via the Telegraph). It’s a huge blow to City who have finally found some genuine momentum after a start hindered by poor away form.
In the absence of a star player like Aguero, those within the club will have to step up and plug the gap he leaves. It won't be easy. Aguero's pace, desire, work-rate and finishing ability mark him out as one of the finest players in Europe, but City's squad is arguably the best in the league, and with the fixtures coming thick and fast they have to cope without him or risk derailing their title charge.
Firstly, Alvaro Negredo, Aguero's partner for much of the season, will be leading the line, and he has to maintain the level he has set already during his time as a City player. His record speaks for itself—seven league goals and five in the Champions League already. His physical presence is a constant threat, and he provides chances for others (four assists already). He's hit the ground running and City need him to continue in his current rich vein of form.
David Silva will also be key. He is City's most creative player, having made a remarkable 33 chances for his teammates in just nine league appearances this season. While the club's principle goalscorer is out, it is vital that level of supply continues. Silva effortlessly makes City a cohesive passing side, always wanting the ball and dictating the pace of the game.
Then there's Edin Dzeko. He was given the nod at Fulham in the first match since Aguero's injury, but failed to impress once again. Missed chances and lack of hold-up play saw him substituted before the hour mark. He will get other chances in the coming weeks, and he needs to make a better case for a regular starting berth than he did at Craven Cottage.
Dzeko proves in spells that he has ability. When he's on his game, he can be a threat, but he too often looks out of sorts. Indeed, there's also question marks over the compatibility of a Dzeko-Negredo partnership. They've only started twice together in the league, and neither time has it worked particularly well. They are possibly too similar in style, something Pablo Zabaleta hinted at in the summer when the Spaniard signed.
He told Chris Wheeler of the Mail: "I'd say he [Negredo] is similar to Edin Dzeko. He's a tall player who works very well inside the box or drops deep to receive the ball when he has to."
It may well be the case that those two simply don't work well in tandem.
Jesus Navas, who came on for Dzeko at Fulham and scored the vital third, may now be restored to the starting XI for the Boxing Day match with Liverpool at the Etihad. Silva can move closer to Negredo and play a withdrawn forward role, with Navas and Samir Nasri in support from wide positions.
It's clear that Aguero's absence will hurt City, and there's pressure on Negredo, Silva, Nasri, Navas and Dzeko to create and score, but four goals in the last match away at Fulham demonstrates the ability City have going forward, even without their talisman.
City's excellent form, which has seen them win eight and draw one of their last nine in all competitions, has put them within striking distance of first place in the league, and also seen them progress in the Champions League and the Capital One Cup. It's time for them to show their squad strength, or risk undoing the hard work of recent weeks.
All statistics provided by Squawka.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @TypicalCity.