The danger with having an impossible dream is that you start to hope that it might come true.
Manchester City endured a traumatic end-of-year period, managing to hold things together when the wheels threatened to come off completely. The fragile defence, in the end, did just about enough to keep the team in contention in the league as well as progress in the Champions League, but there were times when City looked like even fourth place in the Premier League this season would be an achievement.
The horror continued into January, too. A 4-0 defeat at Goodison Park may just be City’s lowest point this season, but since then the club have gone five away games in all competitions without conceding a goal.
That’s made City one of the form teams in the league, and victory over Stoke City in their make-up game tonight will put Pep Guardiola’s side into second, eight points behind Chelsea.
If there was a time not so long ago when they were thinking more about their Champions League status for next season than challenging at the top of the table, then any tilt for the title should now be seen as a bonus.
The problem is, this isn’t the first time City have been left needing snookers in a Premier League title race only to pull it off in the end. Victory will put them eight points behind, and in 2012, when City won their very first Premier League title, they also found themselves eight points back but with only six games left to play.
The story is well-worn by now, and it was surely an inspiration to the team when they again pulled triumph from the jaws of second place in 2014, pipping Liverpool to the title. But perhaps the most impressive feat of clawing back United’s lead in 2012 wasn’t so much the eight point gap, but the goal difference. In six games, City went from eight points and two goals back to level on points and eight goals ahead. They averaged three goals per game, winning their last six that season.
The dream of beating Chelsea this time around, though, is much different. Not only is the swing in goal difference currently huge (13 goals, though if City are to close the gap to eight points tonight, that will necessarily get smaller), but Chelsea’s form makes it look so unlikely that they drop the requisite number of points.
And yet, it’s of vital importance that City keep their momentum going.
There’s the obvious reason, that Chelsea can slip up and City take advantage, or that the chasing pack could still catch City and knock them out of the Champions League places. There’s another obvious reason in that City can use that momentum to compete in the Champions League itself, or win the FA Cup – and you get the feeling a trophy of some kind is needed for Guardiola’s first season in charge to be declared a success.
But it’s also important to remember that momentum at the end of a season can be very important for the next season.
To win most of their remaining games in the Premier League this season and still finish runners-up to Chelsea would place City in a great position going into next season. The fact that they have managed to keep so many clean sheets over the past month or so should show not only that City’s defence is starting to work, but also that their attack is working too.
Guardiola’s problem – or one of them, anyway – seems to have been centred on how to stop conceding from counter attacks. One of the reasons counters can happen is because the attackers haven’t pressed properly, so when City lose the ball, the inability to press in the right way has allowed the opposition to work their way out and break easily. The other reason is much more simple: that you give the ball away in a bad area. City have been guilty of that far too often. Recently, though, there have been signs of form, and that’s come from the front and the back.
That means City have a hope of catching Chelsea, just like they did with Liverpool and United in years gone by. But above all else, it probably means they should have hope of challenging more seriously next season. The impossible has happened before, but Chelsea don’t look like slipping.