If Manchester City are to regain the Premier League title this season, they’re going to have to do it the hard way.
This weekend sees them in FA Cup action, meaning leaders Chelsea could go nine points clear having played three games more. It’s a daunting deficit and City are going to have to be at their very best to overhaul Jose Mourinho’s side and finish top.
Chelsea are the league's experts at winning ugly, consistently finding ways of getting maximum points even when not at their swashbuckling best. It's a skill that has seen them rack up points and become many people's favourites for the title.
There's no doubt City have turned on the style more often than their West London counterparts, but it's points that matter and Chelsea are adept at winning them at all costs.
City may have the best individual defender in Vincent Kompany, but there can be little doubt that Chelsea have the best defensive unit. Their back four is formidable, and as a team they defend expertly. Mourinho doesn't allow for anything less.
And while Chelsea have gradually become the side most familiar with the position at the summit of the table, Liverpool have also shown they pose a significant threat. Those who thought the wheels would come off at Anfield are being left dumbfounded as Brendan Rodgers' side improve each week.
Defensively they remain shaky, but in a season in which no side in the English top flight has strength in every department, their attacking flair, which they have in abundance, could see them challenge until the very end.
Rodgers is also extremely flexible tactically, something he demonstrated in his side's excellent 3-0 win over Southampton at St. Mary's last weekend. Out went Raheem Sterling in favour of Joe Allen who sat just behind Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson to create a diamond midfield spearheaded by the superb Phillipe Coutinho.
It combated Southampton's high-intensity pressing and passing game brilliantly; a piece of tactical excellence, and it won Liverpool three points very few others have managed.
Given the form of those two, winning the league has become a tough ask for City, especially given their exertions in other competitions. Only by keeping their best players fit will they hold aloft the Premier League trophy in May.
The return of Sergio Aguero from a hamstring injury is the best possible boost for them, and their hopes, you feel, rest on his continued fitness.
He managed to play an hour of the League Cup final last weekend, as well as another hour for Argentina in midweek, and if he can stay healthy for the remainder of the season, he will make a huge difference to City's title chances.
In truth, despite their obviously strong squad, they've missed his quality massively.
Not only have the team in general missed his willingness to press high up the field, as well as his pace and goals, but Alvaro Negredo's form has been destabilised in his absence.
Those two were combining effortlessly prior to Aguero's injury at Spurs in January, their chemistry developing with each match. There were few more productive strike forces in Europe, and Pellegrini will be desperate to see them rekindle that understanding as soon as possible.
And it's not just Negredo who will benefit; the sight of Aguero leading the line should lift the entire squad.
He's one of the finest players in world football and the players know that with him in the side, rather than the dysfunctional Negredo and Edin Dzeko partnership, City can beat anyone in the division.
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: @RobPollard_.
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