With the onset of the international break, the Premier League enters the calm before the storm. In two weeks time the Premier League resumes, diving headlong into the season’s definitive phase. The optimism and momentum of the gloriously long, warm summer afternoons which had pushed the lesser lights to surpass expectations gives way to an unremitting, remorseless midwinter slog. As injuries and suspensions begin to mount, and squads wither away to the bone, the Premier League begins to take shape. Form, the winter fixtures have annually demonstrated, is temporary. Class, or the lack thereof, is permanent.
For the elite, however, winter provides another challenge. Manchester City go into the international break five points ahead of their nearest rivals. Two of the top four have already been eviscerated, even if the impressive 5-1 defeat of Tottenham at White Hart Lane has already been overshadowed by hitting Manchester United for six on their own turf. Their eleven games have seen 39 goals already plundered, and yet the statistics only tell half the story. The precision of City’s passing, their ruthlessness when ahead and their punitive attitude to attacking teams already defeated has made for breathtaking viewing. A platform, no doubt, has been built.
In recent seasons, the champions-elect have used comparatively strong starts to build unassailable leads. The momentum generated by fantastic starts enabled Sir Alex Ferguson’s title-winners of 2006/07 and 2008/09 to coast over the finishing line with weeks to spare. In similar circumstances to those Roberto Mancini’s men face in the coming weeks, Jose Mourinho’s expensively assembled teams of 2004/05 and 2005/06 mechanistically negotiated tough away trips and massed ranks ‘parking the bus’ at Stamford Bridge alike. With cold-eyed efficiency, they surgically dissected all opposition that came before them, ensuring that the Premier League was all but over as a contest by February.
This is the standard Mancini must aim for. The most successful sides of recent seasons have blurred the boundaries between beauty and brutality. They are sensible enough to recognise that a coming away from Ewood Park with a 1-0 win holds the same currency as a 6-1 shellacking of their nearest rivals. Words such as ‘consistency’ and ‘grinding out’ come to describe them. They adapt to the change in conditions, to the aching limbs and mistimed tackles which force absences alike.
If a new type of challenge awaits Manchester City, it is one that they are primed to deal with. Respect and admiration has been earned by the swashbuckling manner of their performances and the convincing nature of their victories. Their squad depth is frankly unrivalled; the collective experience of individuals nullifying the fact that the league title has eluded this most entertaining of clubs since 1968. Few will be surprised if they emerge the winter period unscathed, perched right where they are now at the league’s summit.
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