Manchester City: 5 Keys to Securing the Title
Manchester City's ruthless 5-1 triumph over Tottenham to go to the top of the Premier League last week carried with it an air of coronation.
Manuel Pellegrini's free-scoring team took their unbeaten run to 20 matches in all competitions and talk of an unprecedented quadruple rumbled beyond a murmur.
Enter Jose Mourinho. Carrying out his tactical masterplan with technical excellence, Chelsea left the Etihad Stadium with a 1-0 win on Monday night that flattered their hosts.
For now, trophy engravers can stop practicing their "Ms" and "Cs." But as Pellegrini nurses a sixth career defeat in eight attempts against Mourinho, the self-styled "Special One," he will realise much remains in his side's favour.
Chelsea ended City's perfect home record as the 12th Premier League visitors to Eastlands this term. A quick glance at the fixtures still to take place at the Etihad Stadium suggests normal service will be resumed.
Of the seven teams awaiting the dubious pleasure of facing Pellegrini's men on their own patch, only Southampton currently sit in the Premier League’s top half.
Sunderland, revitalised under Gus Poyet, could provide the sternest test in next Wednesday's Capital One Cup final dress rehearsal. Elsewhere, Mark Hughes will be keen to add to Stoke's pulsating victory over Manchester United and get one over on his former employers.
City would be delighted to reach the final day in control of their own destiny. West Ham, so emphatically eviscerated in the Capital One Cup semi-final, are unlikely to offer much more than futile resistance.
Returning Injured Stars
Manchester City supporters bemoaning their team's recent injury woes will understandably find sympathy to be in short supply. According to figures published by the Manchester Evening News last November, Pellegrini’s bench against Chelsea cost £70 million to assemble.
But the injury absences of Sergio Aguero, Fernandinho and Samir Nasri from the Matchday 18 cast a long shadow over City’s listless display. Being without players of such quality would have a detrimental impact on any team, and it is folly to pretend otherwise.
Seemingly inspired by continued omissions from the Brazil international setup as his homeland prepares to host the World Cup, Fernandinho has been a revelation.
Yaya Toure, so often able to bend big matches to his considerable will, was a shadow of his recent self on Monday without the foundations Fernandinho normally lays.
There is little need to embellish upon Aguero's phenomenal record of 26 goals in 25 appearances this term. Nasri, thanks to his genial playmaking displays, has become a more unlikely fans’ favourite following two disappointing campaigns in Manchester.
The prospect of all three stars returning to action within the next month will offer City's title bid a well-timed boost.
Improved Away Record
Study City's remaining fixtures away from fortress Etihad and you might forgive Pellegrini for wrapping Aguero, Fernandinho and Nasri in cotton wool as they complete their rehabilitations.
The rescheduled derby match at Old Trafford on March 25 is followed four days later by a potential title decider at Arsenal.
City's away programme concludes with trips to face both Merseyside clubs either side of a match with Crystal Palace. When Eagles boss Tony Pulis was in charge of Stoke, he never lost a league game to the Blues at home.
Nevertheless, amid focus on their home heroics, City have developed into a similarly formidable outfit on the road.
The effects of early season reverses at Cardiff, Aston Villa and Sunderland, as the squad gradually adapted to Pellegrini's methods, continue to be felt in a nip-and-tuck title race.
But since their fourth-consecutive 1-0 league loss at the Stadium of Light, City have won eight and drawn two of 10 away matches in all competitions. Bayern Munich lie among the vanquished.
They might have a more taxing road run-in than their main title rivals, but City have demonstrated the wherewithal to deal with it.
Imagine being given a weekend off work only to be called into the office because someone messed up. You'd be angry.
At half-time in Manchester City's FA Cup fourth tie against Watford, Vincent Kompany was angry.
Prepared for an afternoon of lounging as an unused substitute, Kompany looked on aghast as his teammates stumbled to a 2-0 midway deficit against their Championship opponents.
Pellegrini sent for the cavalry in the form of Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta. City's in-house camera crew caught Kompany firing up his floundering colleagues in the moments before the resumption.
The rhetoric was hardly Churchillian but his passion was tangible. The sight of Watford players eyeing what lay in store as they walked past was also instructive. An Aguero hat-trick might have ended the Hornets' dreams of a famous cup upset, but Kompany fanned the flames.
A talismanic figure and a born winner, Kompany has only featured in two of City’s five defeats this term. If he reacts like this to the prospect of losing a cup tie to Watford, imagine his feelings on losing the title race.
Goals, Goals and More Goals
On Monday night, as predictions for the title race were pondered and recalculated, perhaps the most surprising statistic was nil. Chelsea were the first team in 62 matches to stop Manchester City scoring at home.
A run long pre-dating Pellegrini’s tenure, the Chilean sent it into overdrive and form on the road followed after initial teething problems.
City smashed through the 100-goal barrier against Cardiff last month, records tumbling in their wake. Alongside Aguero’s goal-a-game heroics, Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko have weighed in with 23 and 17 respectively.
From midfield, Toure’s most fruitful season in front of goal has yielded 15 strikes. In further ominous news for future opponents, City’s forward line is now bolstered by Stevan Jovetic.
The £22 million summer signing could make a second Premier League start against Norwich this weekend and appears hungry to dispel memories of his injury nightmare.
This awesome attacking collective is unlikely to encounter tactical excellence such as Chelsea's again domestically. Serviced by the silken skills of David Silva and Jesus Navas among others, that should mean enough goals to win the Premier League.