Manchester City catch Jose Mourinho's boys
Nine points deficit overturned as champions turn up heat with Aguero hungry to return
When Manuel Pellegrini took Manchester City to the Premier League title, it was seen as a struggle with a reinvigorated Liverpool. But to the City manager, it was also a revival of his often sour relationship with Jose Mourinho and it was a contest Pellegrini won emphatically.
Saturday's 3-0 win over Crystal Palace dragged the champions level on points with Chelsea and Mourinho will know that when winning their two Premier League titles City were adept at exploiting the late errors made by first Manchester United and then Liverpool.
Stoke City's Britannia Stadium, where Chelsea find themselves tonight, has proved a treacherous venue for the league's big beasts.
"I don't know what Chelsea will think (about us)," said Pellegrini.
"What I do know is that three weeks ago we were nine points behind them and close to elimination from the Champions League and we were a team that was dependent just on Sergio Aguero.
"I think maybe this is a miracle, but the miracle has a name and that is hard work."
They had worked all week at Manchester City's sleek new training complex on playing Crystal Palace without a recognised striker.
The task of being the false nine fell to James Milner, who had told Pellegrini that he had begun his schoolboy career in Yorkshire as a centre-forward. He has now played in every position for City except goalkeeper and centre-half.
David Silva benefited from the space Milner created, scoring his first goals at the Etihad since the 6-3 evisceration of Arsenal 12 months ago.
He remarked afterwards that it is quite difficult to defend against a team without a recognised centre-forward: "because the opposition have no point of reference".
Silva was part of the Spain squad that won the World Cup without a proper striker but it is a tactic that can only work with an exceptional midfield.
That, Manchester City possess but the men who swung this game - Yaya Touré, Silva and Samir Nasri - were menbrought to Eastlands under Roberto Mancini, in the days when the club could shop where it liked.
Uefa's financial fair play restrictions have ensured that further trophies will have to be bought on a budget.
To win the title under these circumstances would, Pellegrini believes, count as one of his finest achievements.
"I have managed a lot of teams," he said. "At San Lorenzo we got the record number of points in the history of Argentina. In Spain, I worked with very good squads.
"But a squad is not just about money - as most of you say it is every time (when you talk about City) . This year we have had important restrictions on the amount we spend and the players we can have.
"When you have these kinds of restrictions, you give an advantage to a lot of teams and, if you want to be competitive, you cannot give advantages to other teams."
The catalyst for City's drive towards the top of the Premier League was - as it was last season - a dramatic victory over Bayern Munich. Should Manchester City overcome West Bromwich Albion on Boxing Day, it would create a club record ninth successive victory. Four of those have come without Aguero.
"We knew we had enough talent in the team," said City's full-back Pablo Zabaleta, who could have given Milner a run for his money as an emergency striker.
"But we had to improve our performances collectively. We were probably lacking intensity and concentration in some of the games and that has cost us a few points. Now we are a solid team."
The holiday programme - Albion away, Burnley and Sunderland at home - looks straightforward.
But coming up, like the credit-card bill after Christmas, are Everton, Arsenal and Chelsea.
For those games they will require a proper centre-forward.