Manchester City had scored 16 goals in three Premier League games, but they had yet to face a real test.
Manchester United, too, were keeping the pace, and the two clubs were neck and neck at the top of the table.
The heavyweights were posturing: the Manchester clubs had spent the most money, they were the most feared, and were both in their second seasons with two of the most feted managers currently plying their trade in football. It looked like we were finally going to get the showdown we craved, that Pep v Jose was to see its intensity boil over once again, just like it did in 2011. But this time in the Premier League, and this time with rivals from the same city.
Although Manchester City had already faced Liverpool, their season hadn’t always been the most convincing to date. A routine, if sluggish, victory over newly-promoted Brighton in the opening game was followed by an unlucky draw at home to Everton where Guardiola’s side played the second half with ten men after the sending off of Kyle Walker. A very late victory over Bournemouth followed before they faced their first top six game of the season at home to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
They needn’t have worried about that one: Sadio Mane’s red card may seen the Anfield side give up the ghost and allow City to walk all over them, but it was already 1-0 to the home side by the time goalkeeper Ederson had his face sliced open and left the field in an oxygen mask.
The 5-0 scoreline, though, seemed to kickstart something. Two more big wins followed, over Watford and Crystal Palace, and City were suddenly flying. They had overcome United in the table and slotted into first place by this point. By the time they faced a real test, a trip to champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the shootout was well and truly on come the end of September.
On the final weekend of the month, United went first and beat the luckless Palace 4-0 in a 3pm kick-off. We were now getting used to the two sides, red and blue, swapping places at the top and daring the other to better their result. United moved three points clear – and tied on goal difference – waiting for City to take to the field 45 minutes later in London to see if they could take back pole position.
The build-up to the game, however, wasn’t dominated by United v City narratives, it was dominated by injuries.
News broke through early in the morning just days before the game that Sergio Aguero had been injured in a car crash. Luckily, the Argentinian wasn’t too seriously hurt, but his broken ribs were enough to rule him out of City’s biggest game yet. More worrying, by the time the game came around, was the effect his absence would have on his teammates at Stamford Bridge.
Concerning, too, was the absence of Benjamin Mendy, who suffered a rupture of his cruciate ligament the weekend before, leaving City without a recognised left-back.
In the summer, Guardiola’s team found themselves the subject of numerous headlines regarding the money they had spent on full-backs. Despite this, Mendy’s injury had left them short. They had let go of four full-backs and signed three: two rights-backs and a left. Of all the laterals to lose, the left-sided Frenchman was the worst.
And so if this game, in which City dominated the ball and dictated the play, seemed like a defining moment in the season, it was not simply because Pep Guardiola’s side went to the home of the champions of England – rejuvenated and unbeaten since their shock opening day defeat to Burnley – and came away with a commanding victory. It’s because they did so less two important players, with Gabriel Jesus and Fabian Delph deputising seamlessly for their injured counterparts.
When the time comes to look back over a Manchester City season which saw records fall and rivals swept aside, there will be plenty of highlights for the reels but few real defining moments to look back on. We love hardship, and we demand our champions to have weaknesses to overcome. We want triumph in spite of something.
The 2017/18 Premier League champions didn’t do that. There are few moments where we can look back and say they overcame adversity. But the theme of the season is the creation of a squad which coped with whatever was thrown at it, from long-term injuries to the squad’s weakest pressure point, to absurdist plot twists worthy of Beckett or Camus which saw a star striker swept up in a car crash.
And yet, Guardiola’s men just dusted themselves down and marched on. To Stamford Bridge, where Kevin de Bruyne led the side to a win they rightly celebrated. It was a brave performance where injuries changed nothing as City played their normal game, the fluidity they had achieved saw them triumph just as surely as they would have done if they’d been at full strength.
A week later, Manchester United traveled to Anfield without Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly. And with a weakened spine of the team, Mourinho’s side – who had matched City for goals and entertainment up until that point – played out a drab 0-0 draw. In stark contrast to their city rivals who had accepted the challenge the footballing gods had handed them, United retreated into their shell and shied away from the good fight.
That was the moment when the title rivals were tested. Only one side passed.