As much as Manchester City fans would like to see their side comfortably win the Premier League title, there’s an ever-growing sense in the stands at the Etihad that the club just isn’t built like that. Famed for doing things the hard way down the years, it seems that if they are to emerge as champions in 2017 they’ll have a fight on their hands.
Recently, Chelsea won it at a canter in 2015; Manchester United cruised to the title in 2013; even Leicester wrapped it up with two games to spare last season.
The only time City have been crowned winners with matches left to play was back in 1938, and even then they had to suffer the indignation of being the only reigning champions to be relegated the following season. The titles in 1969, 2012 and 2014 have all been won on the final day and under tense circumstances.
With new manager Pep Guardiola at the helm, the football the club is playing has already been a vast improvement on what was served up in the final 18 months under previous incumbent Manuel Pellegrini. City are one of the favourites for the title and so far they have looked worthy of the tag.
After three games of 2016-17, they’re top of the table by a single goal. Three sides have maximum points — Chelsea and rivals Manchester United are the other two — but at least one of them will lose their perfect record on Saturday as City travel to Old Trafford for the Manchester derby.
With both sides enjoying rejuvenation under new management, there will be renewed interest in this fixture as Guardiola comes face-to-face with old nemesis Jose Mourinho. As City struggled in the final months of Pellegrini’s reign, they found United a difficult prospect — while Louis van Gaal’s team found it a challenge to pick up points away from the big matches and couldn’t leapfrog their rivals in the table.
Now, though, both Guardiola and Mourinho seem to have got their teams back to a level that suggests they will be title challengers again.
In fact, it feels like this current campaign is shaping up to be similar to 2011-12. Back then it was the Manchester derbies that separated the top two in the final standings, as City’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford and 1-0 success at the Etihad put them ahead of their rivals on Goal Difference only. United’s 89 points that year is a record for the highest total not to have won the Premier League.
All season, the two clubs were neck-and-neck. The stress felt throughout the city was more intense than it had been in generations and every weekend both sets of fans were looking at what their rivals had done because it could have meant an opportunity to take advantage.
Losing ground in the race for the Premier League title is bad enough, but it’s agonising knowing that one slip will give your arch-rivals a chance to take home the prize instead. That hatred between the two sides is what made the 2012 title race one of the most exciting in recent times for neutrals and the most stressful for those involved.
That excitement dropped when United struggled under David Moyes and City slipped out of title contention in Pellegrini’s second and third campaigns. The two Manchester clubs might have ended level on points last season, but when they’re both whimpering to a fourth and fifth placed finish it’s less significant.
Few supporters were celebrating because City finished above United; any joy that came from that campaign was more about having qualified for the Champions League.
However, since the Guardiola and Mourinho revolutions at their respective clubs, it appears like there’s more than just pride on the line for the first time in quite a while on Saturday.
The fact there are 34 more matches left to play after the game means there is plenty of time for both sides to either extend a lead in the table or make up any lost ground. Yet, with many tipping a Manchester top two in the Premier League this season, the six points that will be contested at Old Trafford and the Etihad could be crucial in deciding which stadium the trophy eventually ends up at. That’s if it doesn’t go to Stamford Bridge of course.
The rivalry in Manchester is back. With both Guardiola and Mourinho at the helm, it could be that the Premier League is about to see another incarnation of the Roberto Mancini vs. Sir Alex Ferguson spats that existed a few years ago. And it can’t come too soon!