Manchester City are eight points behind in the Premier League title race, but Pep Guardiola’s reigning champions are still convincing favorites to lift the trophy for the fifth time in six years. Why? Because they’ve been there and done it, and even with Arsenal setting the pace at the top and Manchester United beginning to breathe down their necks, they are expected to do it again.
Guardiola doesn’t like the suggestion that City are still favorites and has, occasionally, found himself talking up Arsenal’s chances. Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s game at Chelsea, he said there might not be anything they can do to catch Mikel Arteta’s side.
“We have to reduce the gap by playing well and winning games,” he said. “They could do more than 100 points if they keep this average and [if that happens] we will not catch them. We have to be almost perfect and hope they drop points.”
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, FA Cup and more (US)
“Perfect” sounds like a big ask, but Guardiola — and Arteta, for that matter — will be well aware that City have done it before. When the business end of the season begins in January and the games come thick and fast, they’ve historically put their foot down and quickly motored towards silverware.
Last season, City played 18 league games between Jan. 1 and the last weekend on May 22. They lost just once. The year before, they began 2021 with 18 straight wins in all competitions. Two years earlier, during the 2018-19 season, they played 31 games during the second half of the campaign and won 29. On each occasion it was enough to win the title.
Guardiola, though, is refusing to get ahead of himself. “I said when we were able to do it, these big runs, we never thought about it,” he said Wednesday. “We just thought of the next game. Every game is difficult. We focus on the next game and see what we have to do.”
City’s now customary new year charge will be tough this time after the fixture list threw up a challenging run of games.
After facing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the league Thursday, they face the same opposition at the Etihad in the FA Cup third round on Sunday (11:30 am ET, stream live on ESPN+). They’ve also got Manchester United at Old Trafford on Jan. 14, Tottenham Hotspur at home on Jan. 19, Tottenham away on Feb. 5 and then Arsenal at the Emirates on Feb. 15. It’s a run that could come to define City’s season, and all before the Champions League restarts with a trip to RB Leipzig on Feb. 22 in the round of 16.
“It’s good,” Guardiola said. “Listen, you play all the teams. We try to improve and get better. We go there to win all the games. A lot will happen and many things will happen for all clubs and teams [during the next six weeks]. We’ll see.”
Even with a squad packed full of title experience, Guardiola still has issues to solve. City have taken just one point from their past two Premier League home games, and speaking after the 1-1 draw with Everton on New Year’s Eve, the 51-year-old manager suggested some of his players were suffering from a post-World Cup hangover. Phil Foden, Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker — all usually regulars — have yet to start a game since the restart.
“It is difficult to choose for me because always top players are not playing,” Guardiola said. “Mainly lately, perhaps as I am older, I look at the body language in the training sessions and everything. You cannot play good when the body language is not correct. Sometimes I pick them for the body language, for how happy they look and how they are there. This is one of my main decisions when I choose the lineup.
“With the skills, I know how good they are, and they know what we want to do. But the body language depends on them, and sometimes they are not good.”
One positive for Guardiola, however, is that Erling Haaland has picked up where he left off. In three games since the World Cup, the Norway international has scored four goals to take his tally for the season to 21 in the league and 27 in all competitions. Two more against Chelsea on Thursday and Haaland will have already reached the mark that saw Mohamed Salah and Son Heung-Min share last season’s Golden Boot — just in 21 fewer games.
Arteta has got Arsenal fans believing while Erik ten Hag has brought some optimism back to Old Trafford. Newcastle United, meanwhile, have lost only once all season and have the best defensive record in the league.
Despite all that, though, City are still favorites to win the title again. History is on their side. Oh, and Haaland.