MANCHESTER (Reuters) – Manchester City’s eight-point advantage after 11 games is leading to talk of the Premier League title race being over in November, but as Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho noted English football has a habit of throwing up surprises.
It is undeniable that City are currently playing with such a verve, fluency and effectiveness that it is hard to imagine them losing three games and allowing their rivals, whether it be United, Spurs or Chelsea, into the race.
But while the form of Pep Guardiola’s team and second-placed United’s recent losses to Huddersfield and Chelsea point towards a runaway title win, there is indeed lot of football left to be played.
“Eight points in the Premier League is not the same in Portugal, La Liga or the Bundesliga. Yes, it is eight points but there is still a lot of play to come,” Mourinho said after the loss at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, which followed City’s comfortable 3-1 win over Arsenal.
While Mourinho was not explicit in his explanation, the fact is that suspensions and injuries to key players happen and, over the course of a long season, can radically impact a team’s form.
And while City certainly have plenty of quality, their strength in depth has not yet been truly tested.
Guardiola was already taking about his team being tired after their midweek trip to Naples in the Champions League. How will they be holding up physically after a fixture-congested festive season? How will they cope in February when they will be in knockout action in the Champions League?
City made a strong start last season but then suffered successive defeats – to Chelsea and Leicester City – at the start of December before ending that month with a loss at Anfield on New Year’s Eve.
United host City at Old Trafford on December 10, a game which Mourinho surely has his eye on already as a chance to reign in the leaders and he suggested that his team will be stronger with some key figures set to return.
“I hope, feel, think and wish that in the busy period at the end of November, December and January, we’re going to be at maximum strength with Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rojo back from injury,” he said.
Certainly United’s stumble in form after their excellent start of six wins from seven games, has coincided with the absence of French midfielder Pogba, whose partnership in central midfield with Nemanja Matic was developing so well.
Romelu Lukaku’s goal drought has had a bigger impact given the absence of an alternative central striker and the return of Ibrahimovic, who had scored 17 goals in 28 Premier League games before his knee ligament injury, would give Mourinho another option.
While the focus is on United’s challenge, it is worth noting that Tottenham are level on points with them and after their crushing of European champions Real Madrid last week, a long winning run from Mauricio Pochettino’s team cannot be ruled out.
But while Guardiola is right to play down talk of an inevitable title win, he couldn’t help highlighting one key difference from last season – his team’s performances against top six clubs.
“Last season against title contenders, we were able to win just twice. Coming into November, we have already beaten Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal,” he said.
Six days after December’s clash with United, Guardiola’s side face Tottenham at the Etihad and then on January 14 they are at Anfield, where their title bid unravelled last year.
If City can triumph in those games then perhaps talk of a one-horse race can be justified. But as Mourinho says, there is a lot of football left to be played.