When 10-man Manchester City battled past Hull, 2-0, last Saturday, it felt like a pivotal moment in the battle for the Premier League.
Yet at the end of a tumultuous weekend in the title race, that David Silva-inspired triumph seemed an awfully long time ago.
City produced a display of character and resilience following the 10th-minute dismissal of captain Vincent Kompany at the KC Stadium.
Shorn of Willian during the second half at Villa Park later the same day, Chelsea offered an object lesson in how not to cope when a man light.
Fabian Delph impudently stabbed home the only goal of the game for Aston Villa before Ramires also saw red. Boss Jose Mourinho was sent to the stands for bringing his protests over the latter incident onto the field of play.
On Sunday, Arsenal beat Tottenham, 1-0, to claim the North London bragging rights. More significantly, Arsene Wenger’s men essentially sectioned off a four-way title race from the rest of the division.
A run of eight wins and two draws in 10 league outings since the turn of the year has unquestionably established Brendan Rogers’ men as the form horse.
Liverpool are no longer swashbuckling outsiders; they are the would-be champions in the eyes of many. It is a label that has certainly done the rounds.
Following opening day embarrassment at the hands of Villa, Arsenal eased their way past the early season competition with typical panache. Was Wenger set to end his nine-year trophy drought with the big one?
By the festive period, the Manchester City goal machine had well and truly kicked into gear.
An effervescent 5-1 win at Tottenham at the end of January was City’s 20th game unbeaten across four competitions. Talk that Manuel Pellegrini’s side could win the lot was not completely dismissed.
Being labelled serial winners did not seem to sit well with the Blues. In their next two games, the goalscoring juggernaut ground to a complete halt.
The first of those was a limp showing against Chelsea, from which point, Mourinho and his team began to look the most likely champions—despite his protests, as per The Guardian. Until the weekend.
Six points now separate the top four, with the chasing three all having played fewer games than Chelsea. Fans are understandably enraptured, and numerous further twists undoubtedly lie ahead.
City should enjoy taking stock from their position below the radar and ensure the mistakes of early February are not repeated. If the next nine days go to plan they will not remain there for long.
The epic goal feats of the winter have subsided, along with the team’s general form. The Capital One Cup is safely stored in the Etihad Stadium trophy room, but UEFA Champions League disappointment followed FA Cup embarrassment.
Nevertheless, three games in hand—as Mourinho was happy to point out to BBC Sport—means City’s fate remains in their own hands.
It should stay firmly there when bottom club Fulham visit Manchester on Saturday. That game comes after a lunchtime kick-off where Chelsea or Arsenal will drop points at the hands of the other.
Barring any unexpected hiccups, away games at United and Arsenal next week are set to represent defining moments in City’s season.
What Pellegrini would give to see the free-scoring knack return at Old Trafford and the Emirates Stadium. Problems in attack mean he cannot count on it.
A hamstring strain at White Hart Lane meant talisman Sergio Aguero lost fitness around the same time Edin Dzeko lost form, while Alvaro Negredo continues to struggle for both.
Yet two of Negredo’s Spain international team-mates—of contrasting qualities—are opening up an alternative route to glory for City.
Silva’s tour de force at Hull stands arguably as the season’s finest individual display. On the top form he appears to be hitting, there are few playmakers in the world to match the former Valencia star for sheer incisive creativity.
The other stars amid City’s array of midfield talent must continue to pick up the tab while the attack remains below par. Silva, Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri have all done so with vital goals in recent weeks.
Javi Garcia enjoying comfortably his best run for the club to date should make this task more manageable. The ponderous, insipid nature of Garcia’s displays last season made the £15 million signing from Benfica, as per transfermarkt.co.uk, a poster boy for City’s hideously wasteful summer 2012 transfer window.
But where games previously passed him by, Garcia now displays the anticipation and assurance so vital for top-level holding midfielders in addition to his natural physicality. He appears a beat ahead of the action rather than a step behind.
In wins over Bayern Munich and Chelsea this term, the 27-year-old was among City’s best players. At Hull, he slotted seamlessly in at centre-back as Kompany took an early bath, marking a stark contrast to his haphazard early-season attempts in the position.
When Joleon Lescott was introduced, Garcia reverted midfield, freeing up Fernandinho and Silva to drive home City’s advantage. A solid midfield anchor behind Pellegrini’s array of creative talents could be a decisive factor during this crucial period.
City are unbeaten on the road in the Premier League since early November, but a more robust feel would be welcome in their coming assignments. Not to mention trips to both Merseyside clubs that must still be negotiated.
This pulsating Premier League title race feels almost impossible to call. Nine points over the next nine days from Manchester City could lend some conviction to the predictions.
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