Struggling against the best: Manchester City’s Premier League title charge has run out of steam

Manuel Pellegrini’s side have had to make up bigger points gap in fewer games before, but as witnessed in the 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, his players look out of puff against more energetic teams.
Manchester City's Sergio Aguero (L) and Kelechi Iheanacho (C) react after Tottenham Hotspur's Christian Eriksen scores the 2-1 goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester, Britain, 14 February 2016. EPA/PETER POWELL
Manchester City's Sergio Aguero (L) and Kelechi Iheanacho (C) react after Tottenham Hotspur's Christian Eriksen scores the 2-1 goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester, Britain, 14 February 2016. EPA/PETER POWELL

There comes a point in every season when Manchester City’s title race appears to be run.

In 2012, it seemed to be when they lost at Arsenal in April, had Mario Balotelli sent off and lay eight points off the summit. They duly won their last six games and overhauled Manchester United.

In 2014, it was when they drew against Sunderland, having lost to Liverpool, to be six points behind Brendan Rodgers’s runaway leaders. Five victories later, they were champions.

They have more margin for error now than then so it feels premature to write City off. Yet it has come to something when it is even a legitimate topic. Sunday’s 2-1 reverse to Tottenham Hotspur was their seventh defeat of the league season. No side has become champions after losing as many since Everton 29 years ago, which underlines the difficulty of their task.

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The fact that they have only taken a point from five meetings with the other contenders suggests that, while they are the most talented team in the country, they struggle to assert themselves against the best.

The theme of Manuel Pellegrini’s City career threatens to be one of a decay. His side secured 86 points in 2013/14 and 79 last season. They are on course for just 69 now.

That Sunday brought a second successive setback at the Etihad Stadium was indicative. The certainties of the past no longer exist. City had assembled the most formidable home record in the country over the past five years. Now they have lost consecutive league games on their own turf for the first time since 2008. Fortress Etihad may be no longer. It would leave Pep Guardiola with a rebuilding job next season.

The figures point to a deterioration. City have long been a mercurial team, with a capacity to frustrate and exhilarate according to their mood but in England, if rather less frequently in Europe, they have had a habit of performing when it matters most. Now that seems to have deserted them.

They could count themselves unfortunate on Sunday, especially with the award of the penalty for Tottenham’s opener, but their more damning displays came earlier. Their poorest performances – the second half at Tottenham in September, the whole games against Liverpool, Stoke City and Leicester City – have revealed an unfortunate tendency to capitulate. A pattern of losing to more industrious and energetic teams reflects badly on them.

City have only really resembled champions in the first five games, which brought five victories and five clean sheets. Since then, theirs has been a stop-start journey, lacking the smooth acceleration that Leicester City and Tottenham have shown at times.

Continuing in four competitions has been a complication and Pellegrini is entitled to highlight a perennially lengthy injury list but of Sunday’s seven absentees, Kevin de Bruyne may be the only one who would command a place in his strongest side. The sight of the two untried Spaniards, Aleix and Manu Garcia, among the substitutes, could suggest the Chilean lacks bench strength, but the reality is that City’s goal came from the replacement Kelechi Iheanacho. But, in any case, hefty spending gives less scope for excuses.

Especially considering the context. Chelsea’s abominable title defence catapulted City into the position of favourites. Instead of being ushered towards glory, they risk squandering a wonderful opportunity. If Leicester win the division, it will amount to an embarrassment for every club with a bigger budget. If Tottenham or Arsenal do, City should still look back with regret on too many days when points escaped their grasp.

Their capacity to go on extended winning runs may yet prove their salvation. So, too, a new status as underdogs, given their track record of securing victories precisely when others have become the title favourites.

Yet if it does not and while he may take them into territory they have never previously charted in the Uefa Champions League, Pellegrini risks leaving City with domestic decline among his legacies.

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Published: February 15, 2016 04:00 AM

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