They have won one major trophy, are on course for a second and have just played out two pulsating Champions League games against Liverpool, but the reality for Manchester City and Pep Guardiola is that their biggest game of the season takes place at Wembley on Saturday. It may also be their most important of next season, too.
City fans relish taunting their rivals at Manchester United and Liverpool that they “live in the past,” but the danger for Guardiola and his players is that they could now fall into the same trap over the final weeks of this campaign.
There will be an inevitable inclination to harbour grievances over the Champions League quarterfinal elimination against Liverpool — City were on the wrong end of one particularly bad decision by the officials when Leroy Sane’s goal was ruled out shortly before half-time on Tuesday — and there will also be the defence mechanism of reflecting on the champagne football that City have produced throughout this season.
But all of that is now in the past and the results of the last week — consecutive defeats against Liverpool (twice) and Manchester United — have left the chasing pack scenting blood.
City will still win the Premier League title over the next six weeks, it is merely a matter of when it happens, but how they win it will shape their defence of the trophy next season.
And that is why Saturday’s clash with Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley has become so crucial for Guardiola and his team.
Guardiola has never suffered four straight defeats as a manager, but he is facing that ignominy against Mauricio Pochettino’s outfit. And City, having appeared almost unbeatable at times this season, go into the Spurs game having lost five of their last 10 games in all competitions.
The manager has lost his sheen of invincibility and so have City. The fear factor has disappeared and opponents have discovered that, just like any other team, City have their flaws and weaknesses.
Liverpool know they can beat them — they have managed it three times this year already — and United will go into next season buoyed by the memory of fighting back from two goals down to win 3-2, and keep City waiting for the title, at the Etihad last Saturday.
And now Spurs lie in wait. If you had to draw up a list of serious contenders for next season’s title, the four leading candidates would be City, United, Liverpool and Spurs, so another defeat this weekend for Guardiola’s men would have a significant effect on the 2018-19 race.
City are being hunted down and their rivals are the ones drawing blood, so they simply have to find a way to strike back at Wembley.
But the deficiencies in Guardiola’s team are now becoming apparent and they are being exacerbated by the fatigue factor which has begun to set in.
Kevin De Bruyne, such a driving force during the first half of this season, has not scored for City since January, with his goal drought currently standing at 12 games. It seems no coincidence that the team’s form has nosedived at the same time as that of their best player.
Defensively, City have also been exposed in recent weeks. Conceding eight goals in three games against Liverpool and United has been down to a variety of factors, but poor defending is the main one.
Watch how Paul Pogba was allowed to glide unmarked through the defence to score his two goals for United last weekend. Liverpool’s first on Tuesday, when Aymeric Laporte missed a straightforward challenge on Sadio Mane before Mohamed Salah punished goalkeeper Ederson for his failure to claim the ball, was another example of City’s inability to keep it tight at the back.
Fernandinho, whose consistency has been exceptional this season, will miss the next two games through suspension. The Brazilian’s absence will hurt City, and midfielder partner De Bruyne, just when they need his experience and authority more than ever.
All of the above are reasons why Pochettino and Spurs will believe they can strike their own blow ahead of next season and lay a marker on City.
They are unbeaten in the Premier League since losing 4-1 at the Etihad in December and will be keen to avenge that loss, when City destroyed Spurs in one of their most convincing displays of the season.
But City are the ones who now limping towards the finishing line. Maybe the efforts they put in earlier in the campaign have borne fruit with their huge lead at the top of the table, but the downside is the heavy legs and defeats they are beginning to suffer.
And if the malaise continues, the damage could extend into next season and give their challengers even greater hope of achieving success.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_