This is still a three-horse title race – the 10 reasons why Man City might drop points

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This is still a three-horse title race – the 10 reasons why Man City might drop points


It seems unlikely that north London denizen TS Eliot was an Arsenal fan, but his poetry suggests otherwise.

“April is the cruellest month,” begins The Waste Land. “I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,” laments The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. “This is the way the challenge ends; not with a bang but a whimper,” was probably the first draft of The Hollow Men.

Sunday was a disappointing day not just for Arsenal and Liverpool fans, but neutrals who wanted to see the three-way title battle continue. Liverpool’s 1-0 loss against Crystal Palace and Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat to Villa leaves Manchester City two points clear at the top of the league and, as frontrunners, Pep Guardiola’s side are near infallible.

“I have known it all already, known it all,” moans Eliot. But cheer up, Tommy. There is hope yet.

Here are 10 entirely realistic reasons why City could still drop points.


This is a serious article, so let’s start seriously. Can a team do the treble twice in a row? With injuries mounting, games tripling, emotions deepening — can City rouse themselves once more?

There is a reason why a treble — or a double, for that matter — is so rare. Playing in multiple competitions does have an impact. When the margins are so tight, fatigue levels, tactical planning and mental freshness are even more crucial.

When cup competitions are straight knockout, league matches against lower-ranked opponents are naturally the games which can slip out of focus. City host Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals on Wednesday, play Chelsea in the FA Cup three days later, before travelling to Brighton five days on.

Guardiola has already said City are in “big, big trouble” with fatigue and injuries. So that is surely cause for hope for Liverpool and Arsenal?


Manchester City might need a bigger trophy room (Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

The Spurs

Won two, lost five. Has Guardiola ever had a record that bad? Taking on Lionel Messi in the crossbar challenge? Credit card roulette at Manchester’s finest restaurants? Family games of Uno?

City have always struggled at Spurs. Their Premier League record in north London is poorer than any other fixture. Yes, they may have beaten them in the FA Cup this January — but that record does not include their Champions League quarter-final defeat in 2019.

Every manager’s mind has a dark room where they store their worst defeats. Guardiola’s contains a Beavertown brewery and a retractable NFL field.

Tottenham may have been overwhelmed by Newcastle, but both their meetings with City this season have been close. They still have the Champions League to chase, and they will not back down.


Guardiola tends to be dumbfounded by league trips to the Tottenham Hotspur stadium (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Is 30 goals in 37 matches really a down season? Since when did that make you, as Roy Keane suggested, a League Two player? Anyway.

If Haaland fails to score for the rest of the season, perhaps then there is a conversation to be had. For now, City’s rivals simply have to hope the wheels come off.

Pep overcomplicates it

“I always overthink,” said Guardiola in 2022. “I always create new tactics and ideas, and tomorrow you will see a new one. I overthink a lot, that’s why I have very good results. I love it.”

“If it works I am brave, if it doesn’t work then I’m overthinking,” he added one year later. So go on — be brave.

When you already play four centre-backs, why stop there?

Play a back four of Nathan Ake, Manuel Akanji, Ruben Dias, and Josko Gvardiol. John Stones is virtually a central midfielder already. Plonk Kyle Walker (yes, he can count as a centre-back) on the right wing.

The rest of them? Recall Taylor Harwood-Bellis from Southampton and put him up front in the Andy Carroll role. At 6ft 5in (196cm), Finley Burns must be decent in nets. Luke Mbete can return from Den Bosch and use his left foot from the left wing. Max Alleyne, at 18, has been on the bench this season. Fancy joining Stones in the double pivot? There is already chatter about 16-year-old Stephen Mfuni’s technical quality. Stick him in at No 10.

Guardiola believes in total football. They’ll be fine. When you’ve won it all, the only way left to win is to… win better.

Forest’s newest investment finally comes good

Imagine the scenario: Nottingham Forest are battling for Premier League survival and keeping City at bay. In the 71st minute, Phil Foden finally puts them ahead. With 88 minutes gone, Chris Wood bundles Forest back into it. Bedlam.

But before the cheers die away, the whistle blows. VAR review. Suspected foul in the box. The referee walks to the monitor. The City Ground has seen this story before. But then he spots something in the crowd — and walks away.

Amid the depths of celebration, supporters stop for one moment. What made the referee change his mind? They search for an answer — and find it.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Mark Clattenburg.

This superhero has no cape, but Forest’s referee consultant has the regulations to his front and justice at his back. Gotham City is safe from PGMOL. The Premier League table is level once more.


This is Clattenburg’s time (Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Rodri’s break turns into a gap year

Rodri has said he needs a break, but remember this is a player who lives the lifestyle of a university student. He lived in student accommodation. He has a degree in business administration. He drove a second-hand Opel Corsa. He is one step away from selling you £2 entry to Tuesday club nights at Pryzm.

“Spending time with young people the same as you,” he told Manchester City’s website when asked why he considered university the best time of his life. “Studying and going out sometimes. It was good… a great time.”

But in recent months, with the intensity of the campaign — he has played 3,498 minutes for City across all competitions this season — some of this purity must have fallen away.

“I do need a rest,” he told reporters after City’s 3-3 draw with Real Madrid, with the dazed air of anyone who has attended a 9am lecture on a hangover.

One week is a brief break, sure. But why not take three months? Why not find yourself? You’re only in your twenties once. British Airways offers student discounts on flights. There’s a world out there to discover.


Rodri is knackered and needs a gap year (Oscar J. Barroso/Europa Press via Getty Images)

“Jarrod, maaaaate, how’s it going cuz?”

“Gaffer? Gaffer? Gaffer? Moyesy?”

“Kalvin… how’s the new digs? Passport renewed?”

Declan Rice’s phone bill has never been higher.

City host West Ham on the final day. By the time it kicks off, there is little more Rice can do, except take care of his own business. The real work, therefore, starts before. West Ham have nothing to play for — it is time for that to change. Every negotiating card is on the table.

He’s sold his car to Lucas Paqueta. He is willing to withdraw from the England squad in favour of Phillips. David Sullivan has been promised his first-born son. West Ham win.

Roberto De Zerbi’s job interview to remember

This season has slightly fizzled out for Brighton & Hove Albion, who are 10th in the league and winless in four. Roberto De Zerbi, still, has been one of the most impressive managers of the past 18 months. Arguably, only Guardiola exceeds De Zerbi in pure madcap, tactical improvisation.

In the summer, the big jobs are open. Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Barcelona.

The Athletic might have reported on Saturday that Brighton are increasingly confident of De Zerbi staying, but that comes amid a backdrop of talks over a new contract being put on the back burner and the coach has been publicly non-committal about his future.

Showing rather than telling is the first rule of job interviews — and De Zerbi has the opportunity to show his tactical acumen by outwitting Guardiola.

City initially deal with Brighton’s pioneering use of an overlapping sweeper and a pressing pattern based on the Fibonacci sequence, but are flummoxed by the inspired introduction of Jason Steele as an inverted trequartista.


There is no outwitting De Zerbi (Mike Morese/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Gary O’Neil’s luck turns

Gary O’Neil seems an unlikely contender to be on MTV’s Welcome To My Crib, but let’s imagine for a moment that he opens up the doors to his Wolverhampton mansion.

The doormat is a four-leaf clover. As you enter, seven lucky cats wave their hellos. Rabbits’ feet hang from the kitchen beams. Mirrors are banned, O’Neil tells you, demonstrating how he brushes his teeth in the reflection from the bathroom window.

There is an almost overwhelming smell of incense.

No team has been unluckier than Wolves this season. O’Neil has tried reason, he has tried rationalisation. He’s tried avoiding ladders. All that’s left is faith… and Nathan Fraser.

Foden hits the bar. Jeremy Doku trips over his laces. A wild swipe from Max Kilman deflects in off Hwang Hee-chan’s bum. Molineux erupts.

City’s 115 charges reach a sudden conclusion

The metaphorical gavel falls. White smoke emanates from the ceiling of Premier League HQ. This day was thought to be months down the line — but a decision has been made.

City face 115 charges of breaching the Premier League’s financial rules across nine different seasons. If they are found guilty of at least some of them, points deductions are a realistic outcome.

Of course, City will say this is impossible, the most ridiculous suggestion on this list. After all, they vehemently deny the charges and are working hard to prove their innocence.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

The Briefing: Arsenal and Liverpool must show title race isn’t over, it’s only two points

(Top photos: Getty Images)





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