April 17, 2024

Pep Guardiola was right, of course. After watching his Manchester City side throw away the lead on three separate occasions during Sunday’s 4-4 draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, he pointed to the Premier League table (City are top) and his team’s early progression to the Champions League knockout phase as proof his players hadn’t gone “soft” this season.

No one had suggested that they had, so perhaps Guardiola was playing mind games with his squad by claiming that last season’s treble success hadn’t affected the mindset and determination of his players to win again. Maybe it was just a timely reminder from the City manager that it will take another Herculean effort this season to even come close to repeating the remarkable feat of winning the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup.

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But while City go into the international break with a one-point lead at the top of the table — they were two points behind Arsenal after the same number of games a year ago — Sunday’s incredible game at Chelsea offered further evidence that Guardiola’s team face an even more difficult campaign this time around and that they must prepare for a more competitive title race. It’s not that City have dropped a level from last season’s heights. The reality is that opponents are now more prepared to take them on.

Wolverhampton Wanderers claimed a shock 2-1 win against City at Molineux earlier this season by being bold against the champions. Arsenal, meanwhile, ended their 12-game losing streak against Guardiola’s side last month with a 1-0 win at the Emirates that was rooted in manager Mikel Arteta’s readiness to play an attacking game by exploiting the offensive talents within his team. Chelsea employed the same cavalier approach.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side scored four and could have had more — Malo Gusto missed a golden chance when shooting over the crossbar late in the game. But even though City avoided defeat by scoring four of their own, Chelsea’s attacking game plan forced uncharacteristic errors in the City team and led to the chances that resulted in their goals.

Opponents played with greater fear against City last season, possibly because they were still trying to devise a plan to nullify the goal threat of Erling Haaland. With it now being fairly obvious that nothing can stop the Norway international from scoring, teams have decided that, rather than wait for the inevitable City goals by playing with caution, they will take their chances by backing themselves to score. Manchester United adopted a different approach by trying to contain their city rivals at Old Trafford last month, but Erik ten Hag’s side were ultimately blown away in a 3-0 defeat that could have been far worse, adding further weight to the theory that attack is the best form of defence against Guardiola’s team.

City are still the favourites to emerge as champions this season and become the first team in English football history to win four successive league titles, but they have more rivals to their crown than last season, when only Arsenal were able to sustain a challenge.

Arsenal are back again this time around, trailing City by just one point in third place, while Liverpool separate the two sides in second spot ahead of their top-of-the-table clash at the Etihad on Nov. 25. With early-season pacesetters Tottenham Hotspur now suffering a mounting injury crisis after two successive defeats — Ange Postecoglou’s side are still only two points off the top — it will be tough for them to keep pace with key players James Maddison and Micky van de Ven ruled out until the New Year, but they are still capable of taking points off City when they meet in Manchester on Dec. 3. And the same goes for Aston Villa, who host City on Dec. 6, and Newcastle, who have already derailed Guardiola’s hopes of a quadruple this season by eliminating City from the Carabao Cup.

Yet while City clearly face a tougher field than last season, so do their rivals. Each of the top six (as things stand at the November international break) can beat each other, and United may yet add themselves to that list if Ten Hag can coax his underperforming players into something like form reflecting their ability. And Chelsea, despite their poor start to the season, have already taken points from Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and City.

The threat to City comes from one of their challengers breaking clear of the pack and developing the ability to beat their rivals and embark on a winning run. Only Arsenal managed that last season, but the Gunners, Liverpool and even Spurs are all capable of doing that.

City are still top, though, despite Kevin De Bruyne being sidelined with injury since the opening game of the season and with John Stones missing a large chunk of the campaign. Their return to action will give City an even more formidable squad, and they will need it, because teams are now taking them on more than ever before.

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