It feels like Manchester City’s most important match of the season.
They face Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, just over a week after losing at home to Leicester City, a result that saw them slip to fourth in the table, six points off top spot.
Their title ambitions suffered greatly with defeat to Claudio Ranieri’s surprise leaders. It’s of little interest to City that a team of odds and ends, costing around £20 million, look capable of pulling off one of the most remarkable achievements of the Premier League era. They expect to win the league, regardless of the performance of others.
It’s left Manuel Pellegrini in a difficult, but not insurmountable, position. The two times City have won the title in recent seasons, they’ve done so having recovered from worse positions than the one they find themselves in currently. Still, it’s far from ideal, and given the quality of their squad and the nature of the league this season, they should be doing far better.
However, the game against Spurs, who have won their last four and have the air of title winners, is an opportunity for City to send out a message to their rivals that they are still very much fighting to win this division.
The concern from their perspective is their recent struggles against sides who press high and hard. Tottenham hammered them 4-1 at White Hart Lane early in the season. Liverpool repeated the trick, even more convincingly, a few weeks later, as did Stoke City, who harried, harassed and overwhelmed Pellegrini’s men. The 2-0 scoreline flattered City.
They need to find a way of combating Spurs’ high-intensity pressing or face the prospect of ending the weekend nine points off the leaders.
The importance of the game can’t be underplayed. Nor can the battle between Sergio Aguero and Toby Alderweireld. Aguero, City’s Player of the Month for January, is their form man and biggest threat at present. Since the turn of the year, he’s scored eight goals and has once again looked his unplayable self.
Alderweireld, an excellent defender and a superb acquisition for Spurs, has impressed this season. He reads the game very well and is incredibly versatile, able to switch to right-back and play in midfield if needed. The ability to slot effortlessly into other positions is usually the sign of an intelligent footballer who understands the nuances of the game.
His use of the ball is varied, looking to play passes on the ground most of the time but prepared to go long if necessary.
He’s a player City would have been well advised to look closely at—cheaper and better than Eliaquim Mangala; more composed than Nicolas Otamendi.
If there is one area Alderweireld is perhaps lacking in, it’s discipline. He has, at times, been guilty of some foolish fouls this season. Against Aguero, who has the pace to move away from any defender in the league, he will have to be at his absolute impeccable best or risk putting his side in danger.
Aguero has many attributes that make him arguably the best out-and-out striker in world football. His strength, balance, pace and low centre of gravity make him so difficult to contain. In recent times, the closest player in terms of style and natural ability is probably former Brazil and Barcelona striker Romario.
He, too, was incredibly strong, capable of holding off defenders far bigger in size than he was, with fantastic finishing ability when inside the box. The instincts he possessed made him the most fearsome striker of his generation, and Aguero is in a similar mould.
It’s perhaps Alderweireld’s team-mate, Kevin Wimmer, who has offered the best description of Aguero in the build up to this match. Wimmer, whose inexperience is an area City are likely to target, believes Aguero is one of the best in the game, comparing him to Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich's prolific forward.
He told Ben Pearce at the Hampstead Highgate Express:
Aguero is one of the best strikers in the world and we will try not to give him space. It's never easy to defend against a striker like this over the whole 90 minutes, but when we get chances against Man City we have to score and it's also possible that we'll win there.
With strikers like [Robert] Lewandowski or Aguero, maybe over the course of the 90 minutes you think 'they are not so dangerous today', but they only need one action in the game to score, and that always shows the big quality they have.
I think it's like that with Aguero. You always have to be careful, you always have to mark him well and defend well over the whole 90 minutes because when he gets one opportunity the chance is very high that he will score. I think that's the big difference with strikers like this—that they only need one chance to score.
Indeed, it’s that last point that’s perhaps the most pertinent. Aguero is the kind of player who can remain on the periphery for large periods, but his ability to find the net remains constant. Switching off, even for a split second, isn’t an option when up against Aguero.
And with City light on numbers in attacking areas, the pressure on the Argentinian to deliver has increased. Kevin De Bruyne, Jesus Navas, Wilfied Bony and Samir Nasri are all out. David Silva hobbled off against Leicester and may not be at his best. Aguero will carry much of the goalscoring burden.
His record against Spurs is remarkable. Ten goals in eight games, including some vital ones—they're his favourite opponents in English football.
City need more goals from him. Their league season is in danger of collapse. Any further losses—they've suffered six already—would be catastrophic.
They're yet to beat a top-six side all season and haven't won back-to-back Premier League games since October. Both statistics are staggering and in desperate need of change if Pellegrini is to exit the Etihad at the end of the season with a title win as his parting gift.
A victory on Sunday would change the picture dramatically and City know it. Expect a big performance, with Aguero their key man.
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_.