“It’s very important to be focused game by game,” said Manuel Pellegrini after Manchester City’s 3-0 win over Norwich City in the FA Cup third round on Saturday. “We’ve played in the FA Cup and now we must return to the Premier League.”
The Chilean is ready to juggle the demands of multiple competitions. City are the only English club still in the UEFA Champions League who are on course to win the three domestic competitions.
Some have suggested they have had a poor season—and there have certainly been some inconsistencies that have held them back—but there’s still everything to play for as we move into mid-January.
Their Premier League hopes appear to rest on improving their away form. They’ve dropped 12 points on the road already, losing three and drawing three—a poor record at this stage of the season.
But their away calendar in the remaining matches is more favourable than the teams around them.
City have already been to Old Trafford, White Hart Lane, the Emirates Stadium, the King Power Stadium and Selhurst Park, and the quality of the opposition they have to play on their travels is significantly reduced from this point on.
They should, in theory, begin to pick up more points away from home. If they can marry that with their excellent home record, it will be difficult for Arsenal to stay with them.
It's been an unpredictable season, with the traditional top six no longer a cut above the rest. There's a new order developing. Sides formerly seen as second-class citizens are suddenly upwardly mobile and forward thinking.
Middle-ranking teams are now genuinely ambitious, and with the Premier League's television money imbuing them with riches they've never seen, they are now buying top-quality talent.
As a result, the gap between the top teams and the rest has evaporated. Results are unpredictable. The points tally needed to win the title will be much lower than in most previous seasons.
The fitness of City's key players remains at the heart of their inconsistent form. David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany—arguably their three most important stars—have all missed significant chunks of the campaign thus far.
Silva was in sensational form during the opening weeks of the season—arguably the most sparkling football he’s produced since moving to City in 2010.
The ankle injury he suffered in early October kept him out for nine matches, and his performance level has dipped since his return. In recent matches, particularly away from home, he has spent too much time on the periphery of the game, failing to make an impact in the way we know he can.
He is City’s most important creative cog, the man who dictates the tempo of matches. If the club’s medical staff can keep him fit (he’s suffered ankle problems for much of his time in England) and he can return to his best, City will be a much slicker outfit.
Aguero, too, has missed games. The Argentinian notoriously takes time after lay-offs to find his best again. His last period on the sidelines, which was down to an impact injury rather than muscle problem, has once again destabilised his form.
But perhaps his best performance since his five-goal showing against Newcastle United earlier this season came on Saturday in the FA Cup game with Norwich. Aguero took on three players and prodded home to give City the lead, before assisting Kelechi Iheanacho for the Blues’ second, with pace and movement present in his game once again. He was electric.
“The goal that he scored demonstrated he’s 100 per cent fit,” said Pellegrini after Saturday’s win over the Canaries. “But you can be 100 per cent in fitness, and if you don’t have the quality of Sergio, you cannot score that goal.
“He demonstrates in every game that he is improving.”
A fit Aguero guarantees goals. City have lacked a cutting edge for the majority of the season. It appears to be returning, particularly with Iheanacho once again showing his quality. Surely now the 19-year-old Nigerian has usurped the struggling Wilfried Bony.
But perhaps the biggest loss has been Kompany, who has made just 12 appearances for City all season.
City’s defence looks far less stable without him. Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi need his steadying influence, leadership and ability to organise. Martin Demichelis, 35, is past his best.
Kompany's last injury was worrying, indeed. Having returned from an eight-game absence, with Pellegrini and his medical team acting as cautiously as they felt necessary, he was brought on late in the match against Sunderland to give him some game time.
He broke down with yet another calf injury after just nine minutes. His return date isn’t yet set. The difference he makes is remarkable.
The form and fitness of those three players is absolutely vital. If they can play the majority of matches between now and the end of the season, City will win the Premier League.
And although they lost 2-1 in their League Cup semi-final first leg on Wednesday at Everton, they are still in a decent position to qualify for the final. Their home form has been excellent, and a one-goal win after extra time in the return game would be enough to ensure they reach Wembley.
Liverpool have been revitalised since Jurgen Klopp’s arrival, but the German is working with a limited squad of players and needs time to mould a winning squad.
If City were to lift those two trophies, it would be a carbon copy of Pellegrini’s first season in charge at the Etihad.
With the Chilean reportedly set to lose his job this summer, regardless of his achievements over the coming months—as discussed by Daniel Taylor of the Guardian—he needs silverware to be remembered as a success.
A second successive trophyless campaign would render his three-year tenure a failure. Two trophies and progress in the Champions League, which is a realistic scenario, would see him exit as a legend and the club’s most successful manager.
It’s vitally important he gets his side to perform consistently. They have the best squad in the country. It’s time they showed it.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2015/16 season. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard_.
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