Why Manchester City is still very much in the Premier League title race

Why Manchester City is still very much in the Premier League title race
Manchester City players celebrate a goal at the Etihad Stadium. File Photo: AFP
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Many would argue that a Premier League season, like the game of football, is played in two halves. Christmas is the half-time. At this juncture, teams, having played nearly half the season's games, will be plagued by fatigue, undergoing changes in team management, revising their strategies or tinkering with how money may change hands with transfer deals.

Teams must navigate the turbulent weeks at either end of Christmas well to ensure that there are no disappointments at the end of the season. That is the task at hand for Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Why Manchester City is still very much in the Premier League title race
Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola. File Photo: AFP

Stellar record

Considered one of the greatest managers of all time, Guardiola has been spectacular thus far. He has overseen some of the best seasons in City's history after taking the reins in 2016. Under him, City have transformed from a club that might win the League should others stumble to an indomitable force in modern football.

Yet the golden splendour of their many trophies is now quickly overshadowed by a crippling darkness of self-doubt and envy. What were once cheers erupting from the stands have now turned into a quiet brooding.

For a team like City - with its galaxy of stars and economic muscle to match - wins alone don't suffice. They must decimate everything.

Why Manchester City is still very much in the Premier League title race
Manchester City's İlkay Gündoğan celebrate after scoring a goal. File Photo: AFP

It has also not helped that their principal rivals Liverpool are enjoying a near-perfect season, winning 17 of their 18 games so far. With four defeats already, the defending champions City are trailing them by 14 points. It is the furthest they have been with the table-toppers at this juncture in nearly a decade (average: 3.5 points apart).

No team in the League's history has won the Cup with this big a points gulf after Christmas. The unshakable truth that City may now no longer be able to catch up with Liverpool, never mind beat them, is starting to take grip. 

Why Manchester City is still very much in the Premier League title race
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola is always an animated figure on the sidelines during City's games. File Photo: AFP

There is even an increasing hint of paranoia about Guardiola. He had been frequently seen on the sidelines, waving his arms uncontrollably and with menace in his eyes as City find themselves drifting further away from Liverpool and their equally manic-ridden manager Jurgen Klopp.

Lately, Guardiola has reportedly been blaming his team's slump in form on how choked up the holiday fixture is, on how the fans are not loud enough, and even on events that occurred several months ago. Most notable among them is how a Gabriel Jesus's injury-time winner against Tottenham Hotspur was disallowed due to handball in the very second week of the season. Guardiola invokes this incident time and again as the "beginning of their problems".

Why Manchester City is still very much in the Premier League title race
Former Manchester City assistant head coach Mikel Arteta. File Photo: AFP

Amid all this came the news of assistant coach Mikel Arteta's departure. While it is too early to tell what his absence would mean for the team, there can be doubts that Arteta was an integral cog in the City machinery that was responsible for their back-to-back Premier League triumphs, among other accolades.

Pundits are swarming Guardiola now, gauging his every word, analysing his every move for possible hints at how City may fare in the wake of all these and how the Spaniard will prevail. There have even been reports suggesting that Guardiola is contemplating his future at City. Even if it is true, it won't be the first time that he had aired such thoughts. At the end of his first season as City manager in 2016-17, Guardiola, disappointed at where his team was and perhaps doubting his own ability, had stated that City "might be his last team as manager". They were third in the League then but did not win any of the four trophies that were available to them. Guardiola termed even that a "failure". 

So high are the demands heaped on City and even Guardiola, it seems it has finally started to take a toll. City are not just playing football, they are vying for supremacy: their own. We forget that it was only 10 years ago that City were a mid-table team whose biggest ambition then was to win the Manchester derby.

Why Manchester City is still very much in the Premier League title race
Manchester City manager is not one to hold back his frustrations. File Photo: AFP

Tough boss

Guardiola is not one to quit and run though. Even on the back of the "unpleasant" 2016-17 campaign, Guardiola pledged to stay and make things right. He did. He gave us the title-retaining team that City are now, probably the greatest team put together in English football.

City are not known to back off from a fight either. They have been a force to reckon with these past years, breaking records, sweeping titles and making history. While it is true that their light had been diminished of late, all it takes is a spark, a moment of inspiration for fortunes to change, fates to be rewritten.

Bridging the 14-point difference is a mountainous task, no doubt. The enormity of it would leave most teams paralysed, but not City. If there's any team who could do it, it's them. 

They have been in such precarious situations before - twice - and came away unscathed.

Why Manchester City is still very much in the Premier League title race
Liverpool's manager Jurgen Klopp knows all too well what Manchester City are capable of. File Photo: AFP

In the 2018-19 season, City were second during Christmas, a point behind Liverpool, who many thought were certain to lift the Cup. But an excellent run of form in the later stage of the season helped City retain the title.

It was an even more difficult situation in 2013-14 when only two points separated five teams at the top. City were third then, again trailing an upbeat Liverpool. But none of the teams had the same thirst for goals as City did. They surpassed the 100-goal mark that season and wrested the Cup with ease.

This doggedness, this willingness to fight until the very final minute, is quintessential City. This quality has won them four of the last 10 League titles. It's the City we know. 

Despatching a resurgent Leicester City, a side full of courage and pace, with a convincing victory last Saturday was a perfect way to end the first half of the League. Even without their marksman Sergio Aguero and playmaker David Silva, City played stellar football.

Why Manchester City is still very much in the Premier League title race
Riyad Mahrez is firing on all cylinders for Manchester City. File Photo: AFP

Riyad Mahrez proved just how lethal he is in that game. With about the same pace as Jamie Vardy, the finesse of Liverpool's Firmino, and the precision of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Mahrez made it a nightmare for Leicester. He just might be (one of) City's answers to quench any lingering doubts as to their greatness.

Leicester may still be ahead by a point, but they will be biting their nails. Even Liverpool will be wary. This winter will soon wane. City will be at their full strength in no time, and there will be no stopping them then.

Why Manchester City is still very much in the Premier League title race
Manchester City. File Photo: AFP
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