Belfast Telegraph

Manchester City slicker than ever

By Sam Wallace

It was March last year when Joe Hart lamented the inability of Manchester City to make any inroads into the lead that Manchester United had established at the top of the Premier League as Sir Alex Ferguson closed in on his 13th and final title.

The phrase that Hart picked, on England duty that day at St George's Park, to describe United was "a killing machine", articulating a remorseless, unyielding approach to regaining the title that City had won the previous May. It summed up the feeling you suspected was prevalent at the club at the time: that there would be no stopping United whatever they tried.

Ten months on, Hart came down the tunnel at White Hart Lane on Wednesday, at the end of the victory that had taken City back to the top of the table, with the smile of a man who is not taking nights like these for granted. There is nothing prosaic about the way that City are cutting through the opposition; nothing of the machine about the way they are setting themselves up to be one of the greatest sides of the Premier League era.

The 5-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur was, Manuel Pellegrini reluctantly agreed, "maybe" their best away performance of the season, as much for the manner of their attack as their defence.

As a man who often responds to questions like he has recently awoken from a long sleep, it was notable that Pellegrini became animated in his opposition to any suggestion Danny Rose's red card had changed decisively the course of the game.

Defeat for Spurs had been coming no matter what, Pellegrini said, and that theory was hard to argue with. City play their way, regardless of the opposition and 115 goals so far this season before the end of January is testament to the fact that it works.

Victory on Wednesday marked 20 games undefeated since they were beaten by Sunderland on 10 November. They have drawn just one league game in that period and this was the round of fixtures when Chelsea and Arsenal finally could not keep up with the pace. City's form has meant they have long been treated as title favourites, now they have the top spot to go with that status.

What a different beast to the team that were seven points behind United last year, a gap that would widen to 15 by the end of March. What a change of mood too, when, for the first time since the transformation wrought on the club, a calm has descended on City. The Abu Dhabi revolution and the subsequent fast-track to elite status was brutal at times, but it feels like an age has now passed since the last training ground bust-up apocalypse.

The anniversary of Roberto Mancini's fight with Mario Balotelli passed earlier this month, a spectacular which belongs to a different age now, an age when City had a manager who believed in the principle of creative tension.

On Wednesday night the only flashpoint came when Spurs' assistant coach Steffen Freund, for reasons that were not immediately obvious, ran dementedly across the away team's technical area, to the annoyance of the City bench. Pellegrini watched him with the bemused attachment of a weekend gardener observing a squirrel cross his lawn.

Finally City have a manager who realises that with players this good, there should be no need to bother themselves with the kind of preoccupations that concern the mere mortals. Sergio Aguero and David Silva were playing on a different level to the rest on Wednesday and behind them was that familiar powerful team that were ruthless in exposing Spurs' mistakes.

Even with Aguero out, they will have Alvaro Negredo back against Chelsea on Monday when Jose Mourinho will doubtless try some kind of tactical ambush at the Etihad.

Thus far he has tried to play with Pellegrini's mind without success. Asked about Mourinho's theory that City have to win the title, the Chilean stared into the mid-distance on Wednesday and replied: "I don't talk about things that Mourinho said."

Jesus Navas acknowledged after the win over Spurs that Mourinho's team face a particular kind of threat.

"They work especially hard, all the players under Mourinho," he said. "He has a special, winning mentality so it is always difficult to face teams that Mourinho manages."

But there is no quibbling with who the team of the moment are, and that is certainly not Chelsea.

The financial losses continue to stack up, as witnessed by the £51.6m in the most recent accounts, yet City do not feel like quite such a decadent project any longer, not now they have weeded the squad of its millionaire malcontents. They are a credible threat to Barcelona in the next round of the Champions League. If they overcome them, win the Capital One Cup final and eliminate Chelsea in the FA Cup then for the first time in memory, one could start talking about the q-word

It is a lot of ifs, and there is a good reason that no club has ever done the quadruple before.

But these are the kind of terms by which City have aspired to be judged since Sheikh Mansour began the transformation in 2008. No team can ever plan to win four trophies in a season and generally speaking they never do.

But it will require each of their respective cup opponents to have their performance of the season so far to beat City, a reality that shows how far they have come, in just 12 months.

Belfast Telegraph


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