Thursday October 15th, 2015

Chelsea is in crisis with Jose Mourinho under pressure and flailing at a raft of enemies, real and imagined. Manchester United is still inconsistent under Louis van Gaal. Liverpool and Tottenham are struggling to get going. Arsenal remains eternally Arsenal. The start of this season should have been an opportunity for Manchester City to reassert itself and take a commanding Premier League lead and, it’s true, it does top the table by two points. It remains favorite to reclaim the league title. Yet significant doubts remain.

Manchester City plays an injury-ravaged Bournemouth at home on Saturday, which should represent a relatively straightforward three points. With Manchester United away at Everton and Arsenal away at Watford, the Citizens may even increase their lead, or at least see one of their closest challengers lose ground. But there’s a sense in which the Bournemouth game isn’t really about the here and now but about the future and, specifically, whether City can cope without key members of its spine. After all, the following weekend, City travel five miles west to take on United in the Manchester derby, a game that could have huge ramifications for the title race.

Everything seemed to have gotten back on track with the 6-1 win over Newcastle United two weeks ago.

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City had started the season superbly, so well that after five straight wins there was a feeling that it might make the title race a formality. But injuries to Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero brought three defeats in four games–and given the sole win was in the Capital One Cup away at Sunderland, there wasn’t much glory in that–and a reminder of how reliant City remains, after all this time, on its spine.

The fact keeps being repeated but it is worth reiterating that City has spent nearly £500 million on players over the past four years, of which only Fernandinho has really imposed himself on the team (although Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling are well on the way to doing so, suggesting this summer’s business may turn out to be more successful than what has gone before).

The 6-1 over Newcastle–a game that featured plenty of anxious moments in the first half before Aguero’s five-goal salvo around halftime–came without Kompany and Toure, but with Aguero back on song after a couple of quiet games as he returned from a hamstring problem, it seemed not to matter. It then turned out Aguero had been taken off, with a Premier League record six goals in the match in sight, not to spare Newcastle but in order to protect his hamstring. His subsequent breakdown on international duty was wearily predictable.

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City will now be without him for perhaps as long as six weeks, while David Silva could be out for a month after turning his ankle–although there are some reports that he may be fit for Saturday. Toure is a major doubt for Saturday, and Aleksandar Kolarov strained a hamstring while playing for Serbia. Kompany, at least, has recovered from his calf problems and played nearly an hour for Belgium against Israel on Tuesday.

But the reliance on that small cast is telling. City, with all its expenditure, shouldn’t be fretting on the fitness of a couple of players. Of course, it’s a freakish occurrence that led it to go into the Tottenham game missing three key players and with Aguero still handicapped by injury–and to then lose Toure early in the second half–but Aguero’s hamstrings and Kompany’s calf are fragile, and at 32, Toure is only going to need more breaks. City has to learn how to cope.

The United game aside, this next month is relatively straightforward for City: it plays Bournemouth and Norwich at home and Aston Villa away before taking on Liverpool at the Etihad on Nov. 21. This is a time for Wilfried Bony really to establish himself.

He has scored just twice in 19 appearances since making a £28 million move from Swansea in January and, worse, he has looked clumsy and out of sorts in recent weeks.

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“A lot of crazy things have happened since I joined City, and I’ve been ruled out with injury three or four times so it’s been hard to find any rhythm playing one or two games here and there," he said this week. “It’s been the worst spell of my career without question–in the past five years I’d never missed more than two games in a row and at Swansea I only missed a handful of matches.”

But, particularly if Silva is out, this is also a test of De Bruyne and Sterling and thus of City’s transfer policy as a whole. City announced a profit this week for the first time since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover, but some evidence the club has actually developed on the pitch over the past four years would be welcome–and that means at least some of the new signings stepping up.

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