We’re into the final furlong of the Premier League title race.
In the red silks are Liverpool, the outsiders from the very beginning, who have reached the front six hurdles out and are hurtling along at an alarming speed they’ve rarely shown in the Premier League era.
In the dark blue are Chelsea, who have long been favourites with many despite their jockey’s insistence that they are "a little horse." They are faltering and have hit a couple of claret-and-blue fences in the shapes of Aston Villa and Crystal Palace recently. They still managed to leave Arsenal trailing in their wake, though.
Manchester City, in the lighter blue, are hanging in there. They’ve jumped two fewer fences than their rivals, but they are loitering with intent and capable of kicking on at any moment. They’ve got plenty of power in all areas, including in reserve.
When they move on and really hit their stride, few can match them.
It is during these moments that title, and indeed horse, races are won and lost.
Liverpool’s current stellar form is largely based around the fact that Brendan Rodgers has been able to pick a settled team. You can usually confidently predict 10 of the 11 players Rodgers will send out on to the pitch, with the question mark coming over which two of Joe Allen, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling he chooses to start, a choice based on which formation he’s going to go for.
Chelsea’s rotating attackers make Jose Mourinho’s selections tougher to call, but in recent matches it has been a little easier to guess the starting XIs named by Manuel Pellegrini and City.
Just like Rodgers, the Chilean possesses certain players in form, and it is to them that he is turning as the season reaches a critical stage.
City named the same team for the recent matches at Manchester United and Arsenal―the former fixture resulting in the type of simple win that they’ve come to specialise in against their rivals, and the latter viewed as a point gained following a strong second-half fightback from the Gunners and a refusal to be steamrollered by one of the elite clubs again.
Both were results that kept City’s title challenge on the rails, and however much Liverpool’s explosive style threatens to blow his side off that track, Pellegrini should stick with the formula and players which delivered those results.
Edin Dzeko has hit form at a crucial time; David Silva has done what many have been asking him to for years and started to contribute important goals; Samir Nasri is playing the best football of his life and the same can probably be said of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho.
Further back, things have become more solid, and even Martin Demichelis is doing well.
All of this means that, despite the drop-off in form from Alvaro Negredo and the still sometimes unconvincing displays of Jesus Navas―the winger needs to prove that he’s simply more than just a good outlet―there is no need to rush Sergio Aguero back to action following his latest hamstring complaint.
Whereas earlier in the season it was the stunning goalscoring form of Negredo which meant that the Argentinean wasn’t missed, now it is much more of a team effort that ensures that, right now, he isn’t needed.
We all saw what happened when Pellegrini tried to rush Aguero back for the Champions League second leg at Barcelona, with the forward turning in an impotent display before being replaced by Dzeko at half-time and not being seen since. With a World Cup in which he can be a star rising up on the horizon, Aguero won’t be in any mood to let this happen again.
He has said as much himself, telling DirecTV (an interview published here by Sky Sports):
With this recovery I am trying to do my best to be able to play again, but I cannot do it in a hurry.
I do think to myself if something happens now, I will lose the rest of the Premier League season and the World Cup.
That isn’t the sort of mindset that City want in a title challenge, especially with Liverpool seemingly raising the bar each and every week.
Aguero could return to action as a player determined not to get injured again, and understandably so given just what he would stand to miss out on should that troublesome hamstring give him yet more grief. Sometimes you need to be selfish in football, but in truth City should be making this decision for their star forward.
In his absence we’ve seen Dzeko rediscover the finishing ability which he has only displayed sporadically throughout his City career, with the added bonus and confidence boost of two goals at Old Trafford.
In addition, Silva got arguably one of his team’s most important goals of the season when they were down to 10 men at Hull, and then he scored again at Arsenal last weekend. Toure has overtaken Aguero and is now the third-highest goalscorer in this season’s Premier League behind Liverpool’s dynamic duo of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
So much of the Reds’ hopes in these closing few weeks will rely on those two players, and there would be an argument for Rodgers to play one of them even if they weren’t feeling on top of their game or weren’t 100 per cent fit.
The alternative―a switch in formation or appearances for the likes of Iago Aspas or Victor Moses―would noticeably weaken Liverpool, but at City it’s different. Their extra resources mean that they don’t need a half-fit Aguero leading their forward line right now. If anything, that would be damaging to their title hopes.
There are likely to be certain fixtures―with perhaps this weekend’s home clash with Southampton being a prime example―which will see Pellegrini opt to play a second striker, maybe dropping Navas for Negredo and partnering him with his current go-to man Dzeko, and let’s not forget that City still have Stevan Jovetic to call on, too.
Indeed, the extra freshness of Aguero and Jovetic could be viewed as vital in the closing weeks of the season, until you realise that the pair have still never once played together in the Premier League. One has often replaced the other from the bench, but they are still yet to pass a ball to each other in an English league fixture.
Should you be relying on such ships in the night to win you a trophy you crave above all others? No, not when your main rivals for that trophy have formed one of the most potent partnerships in recent times, anyway.
Aguero’s time will come again, and if City are satisfied that he is good and ready to return right now, then they will obviously be boosted by his presence, his quality and, of course, his history of scoring crucial last-minute, title-winning goals.
If anything, just having him there on the sidelines is more of a threat to their title rivals, who must be wondering just when and where he’ll return.
That return should not come too soon, though, because that would risk the immediate future for both the player and his club.
And both have immediate goals that are far too important to take such unnecessary risks.