Manchester city have had the perfect start to the season. They may not have won every game, but their draw at home to Everton in the second game of the Premier League campaign perhaps guarded against a little bit of complacency that may well have creeped in early on.
Since then, they’ve gone from strength to strength, accumulating not just wins and points but performances and plaudits, too. People are starting to believe that City can even win the Champions League.
And yet, it’s early for those sorts of proclamations. Too early. Not only do we still have well over half of a league season yet to come, but we don’t even know who Pep Guardiola’s team will draw in the last 16 of the Champions League. Tonight’s game against Feyenoord will be crucial on that score.
Indeed, this may well be a game where the manager will look to rest some of his players following a packed campaign so far and the caution taken from an injury to John Stones. There could well be consequences ahead for not winning it.
Topping the group is important, though perhaps not as important as it used to be. But failure to beat Feyenoord, the worst team in the group, could see City needing to go into their final group game away to Shakhtar Donetsk to get a point. It’s not a dire situation by any means, but it is a tough trip. Even tougher when you factor in the next game just a few days later – Manchester United away.
On top of that, with Stones and Benjamin Mendy out, you get the feeling that this is the start of City’s biggest hurdle yet. They haven’t had to react to defeat just yet, and that moment will likely come. But if it does arrive in the next few weeks, we’ll see just how deep the squad is.
And in a problem position, too.
Although they strengthened heavily in the summer, it’s clear that City wanted a centre back. Vincent Kompany isn’t reliable enough to rest upon for a season fighting on all fronts because of his injury problems, as sad as that fact is, and Eliaquim Mangala doesn’t instil the most confidence to say the least. Injuries to any other department would have shown the strength in depth the side have, but perhaps in the defence those reserves don’t run quite as deep.
When City do finally lose – surely they can’t go all season unbeaten? – then we’ll get to see how the squad copes with pressure of defeat. One bad run can halt all progress even if the worst that could happen to City with defeat tonight is that they finish second in group. It remains to be seen how defeat would affect season in league, too.
It’s worth noting, too, that last weekend’s victory over Leicester was a battle, something we haven’t seen City have to overcome much this season. It was a tight game where they scored from two beautiful pieces of quality: one team goal which proved that their intricate football can be victorious even on hard days, and another straight after their opposition had hit the post, almost equalising. It was a game they may well have lost last season.
The negative, though, is that this could be start of a ‘bad’ run – that is, a run in which they are slightly losing form and having to scrape through. Every team goes through it, and recovery is the difference between a successful season and one that’s not so good. It would be frightening for the rest of the league if Leicester turned out to be a game they won whilst not at their best. They were still able to win without giving up their principles, even with two centre backs who haven’t played much this season and a left-back who isn’t a defender at all.
But defeat tonight, and then the intrigue begins: afterwards, there’s a derby on the back of what would be a vital group game in Ukraine and then Tottenham not long after. A winter of hardship could still be on the horizon.
It’s too early to proclaim City as champions, everyone knows that, and doing it reads almost like an attempt to set Pep Guardiola’s side up for an almighty fall later in the season, even if it’s just praise for the best team in England. But over the next few weeks, difficult games will pile up as the winter approaches and City are playing in every competition. There’s no let-up, but losing to Feyenoord could add an extra hurdle to overcome away in Ukraine right when City didn’t want it. And there might yet be hope for Manchester United in the title race.