It has all been going so smoothly for Manchester City. Perhaps too smoothly.
In winning 22 games out of 23 from Dec. 30, City was often in cruise control and came up against opponents who mostly sat back and engaged in a damage-limitation exercise.
Bournemouth, playing at home, didn’t have a shot in its 1-0 loss to City on March 2. Watford fielded a virtual reserve team for its 3-1 loss at Etihad Stadium a week later.
Just last week, City enjoyed 79% possession in beating Cardiff 2-0. Four days earlier, City scored two goals in the first 27 minutes at Fulham and barely got out of second gear in another 2-0 win.
Hunting for an unprecedented quadruple, City’s players were winning easily and managing to preserve their energy levels at the same time. Their cup draws have been so benign that they have reached two domestic finals and the Champions League quarterfinals without playing any team in the top six in England, Spain, Italy or Germany.
But this begs the question, how battle-hardened has this actually left City for its defining weeks of the season?
The first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals against Tottenham on Tuesday kicked off an exacting run of five games in 15 days, three coming against Spurs — two in Europe and one in the league — and the two others being matches at Crystal Palace — in its atmospheric, tightly packed Selhurst Park — and Manchester United. A two-legged Champions League semifinal, against Juventus or Ajax, may follow.
It hasn’t started well. City, at times, couldn’t live with Tottenham’s intensity and energy in a 1-0 loss in the London club’s new stadium on Tuesday. There were sloppy errors, petty fouls (especially from the permanently-on-the-edge Fernandinho) and opportunities were snatched at.
“We were not brave enough in the game,” City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan said, “and we made a lot of simple mistakes.”
The second leg is at the Etihad next week, when City can expect more in-your-face pressing from Mauricio Pochettino’s hard-working Tottenham side. Before then, City must travel to Palace in search of a win to keep pace with Liverpool in the title race.
Palace is one of the four teams to beat City in the league this season, 3-2 at the Etihad in December, and was also the team that ended City’s record 18-game winning run in the league last season. Guardiola has previously said it is one of the hardest grounds to win at.
In Spain, Real Madrid’s season fell apart in a disastrous seven days at the end of February and start of March, when it lost three straight games to exit the Champions League and Copa del Rey and also drop out of realistic contention in the league.
“It’s all gone in a week,” Madrid defender Dani Carvajal said at the time.
Could the same be about to happen to City?
Guardiola can’t really be reproached, with his team so close to making history. Some accused him of overthinking his team selection against Tottenham, picking Fabian Delph at left back and Riyad Mahrez at right wing and leaving out Kevin De Bruyne and Benjamin Mendy. Only Guardiola can judge the fitness levels of his players in this arduous period, though, and both Mendy and De Bruyne are coming back from injury-enforced absences.
And how else could Guardiola have navigated the schedule from January to March, when he was often faced with a bunch of easy opponents — in relative terms — for City? Maybe he is just the victim of circumstance.
But in the next few weeks, City’s players — no matter how fatigued they might be starting to feel — need to play at a different level of intensity then they have in recent weeks. After 52 games of a grueling and potentially record-breaking season, can they manage it?
If they can’t, they could finish the season with only the two domestic cups to show for all their efforts. And that is providing they get past a resurgent Watford in the FA Cup final on May 18.
That would be regarded as a successful season for almost any other side, but not for this City team.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80