A third successive home draw has cast new doubt upon Manchester City’s ability to last the pace alongside Liverpool and Chelsea, unencumbered as they are by European competition.
Chelsea’s 5-0 demolition of the very same Everton side that proved so stubborn against City three weeks prior has opened eyes. Liverpool’s 6-1 win over Watford — which carried the Reds past City in the table — confirmed Jurgen Klopp’s team as serious contenders too.
At the same time, City were being held by a stubborn Middlesbrough side who spent the first 45 minutes packing their own half and smacking the ball into acres of space. Although the visitors woke up a little in the second half, finally asking some questions of City’s infamously fragile rearguard, it was a poor two points to drop, especially after similarly desperate draws at home to Everton and Southampton. City, perhaps a little weary after their humbling of Barcelona in the Champions League, simply took their collective foot off the gas.
It has long been clear that in order to win the Premier League, going to sleep is not an option. Resting on your laurels is likewise not advised. The Premier League is full of energetic, well-organised sides that will run all day long in pursuit of meagre offerings.
There are plenty of parallels with Manuel Pellegrini’s last season in charge. The manager presided over a lethargic, self-indulgent mess of a season, with points scattered to the four winds at an alarming rate. It appears on occasion that something similar is happening to Pep Guardiola’s first season in the Etihad hot seat.
Pellegrini had it made abundantly clear to him that Champions League progress was the key and it is hard to deny the same tones and shadows are beginning to fall across the present campaign. The perfect storm that hit Barcelona saw City play some of the best football in the past five decades. What went on either side of that startling performance does not bear proper comparison.
Pellegrini’s shortfall was listening to his bosses’ wishes and lacking the character to keep his big players at a consistently high level of production. Big players have seen it all before. They do not need a manager to get them up for Barcelona and Juventus, nor do they need anyone to tell them that the bread and butter counts too — that Watford, Hull and Middlesbrough will not lie down and concede games without a sizeable struggle.
Guardiola has been hamstrung to an extent by a number of factors. He must learn the ropes of this strange and exotic land; he must play games — as he did quite fabulously against Barcelona — with, to a large extent, someone else’s cast-offs. To see off the Catalan giants so comprehensively with a team containing Aleksandar Kolarov, Willy Caballero, Jesus Navas and Fernando provided quite a spectacle. All of these players were thought to be on their way out when Guardiola arrived, and yet he managed to mould a coherent unit.
Guardiola has also seen Kevin De Bruyne miss games with injury and Yaya Toure’s agent scupper any chances the Ivorian might have had of seeing minutes in league play. Fabian Delph and Vincent Kompany have also been out of action for long periods of the season so far.
On top of this, City must now accept that — with Guardiola in charge — they have become the yardstick for clubs to measure themselves against. The respective goalkeepers and defenders of Everton and Middlesbrough have demonstrated that clearly enough.
Of the players that have stayed fit, not all have fired on all cylinders. For all of Sergio Aguero’s goals, there remains a doubt about how many he misses. An easy chance to make it 2-0 late on against Middlesbrough would have heralded the beginning of the end for the Teesiders. Instead, he scooped a simple chance over the bar and, 10 minutes later, the scores were incredibly level.
Guardiola is battling manfully against a time clock that is not his best friend. He must clear the decks and reorganise in double-quick time. Clear challengers have already made themselves known. Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal will not go away in any hurry. Tottenham too can be considered a danger, especially as it was Spurs whose shape and attitude gave City the most problems so far. With Manchester United not looking capable of anything more than scrapping for crumbs with Everton and Southampton, the die has surely been cast.
To prevail, City must rid themselves of the complacency which has dogged the last three home games, find the net with a greater percentage and find definite patterns of consistency. Anything less will not be good enough to win domestically or on the playing fields of the continent.
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