Already, perhaps, it’s too late and the battle for second is the only thing left for the two Manchester clubs. Chelsea remains unbeaten this season, and, but for two late equalizers, both conceded against the run of play and both when the game seemed won, it would have won nine out of nine so far.
As it is, both City and United have stolen points from Jose Mourinho’s side and so Chelsea’s lead over City is just six points. Just six. With Chelsea at home to Queens Park Rangers, it’s likely to be nine by the time the Manchester derby kicks off on Saturday. That brings an additional pressure, to City at least (for United, four points further back, the title race is surely already over).
It’s all very well for Manuel Pellegrini to point out that City is a point better off after nine games this season than it was last, but last season there was no Chelsea remorselessly churning out results. City’s grasp on the title is already tenuous; if it loses on Sunday and the gap is increased to nine points it will be all but gone.
City’s recent form provides little reason for optimism. It hasn’t won any of its last three games, throwing away a two-goal lead to draw in Moscow against CSKA, and then being beaten at West Ham in the league and at home to Newcastle United in the Capital One Cup. Even worse, David Silva, who scored City’s goal at West Ham and whose form has been one of the few positives of this season, limped out of that last game and is out for Sunday.
Yaya Toure, whose form continues to frustrate, is an injury doubt as well. There are some City fans who insist he has effectively downed tools after a move to Paris St.-Germain failed to materialize in the summer, while Pellegrini has suggested he is struggling to regain focus following the death of his brother Ibrahim in June. Whatever the reason – if, indeed, there is one: sometimes players just lose form - Toure has been playing in fits and starts this season, occasionally producing a moment of brilliance, but never seizing a game and directing it according to his will.
And that, really, is the wider story: what City has done well has tended to be individualistic – there has been little sense of cohesion or collective purpose. It’s all very reminiscent of the 2012-13 season when, having won the league, there was a noticeable dip in application and hunger.
“We are conceding too easy goals with individual mistakes but I think we are not playing the way we normally play,” said Pellegrini. “We’re not moving the ball as fast as we normally do, we’re not playing easy as a team, we’re playing too much as individual players and we are missing too many chances. Maybe it’s all linked with the lack of trust. We’ve had three games in a week and they have been very similar — we conceded two goals in each too easily and had a lot of chances in the three games to score and didn’t.”
City last faced United in March, a couple of weeks after defeats in the FA Cup to Wigan and in the Champions League to Barcelona had raised questions about its defending (subsequent victories over Hull and Fulham had merely demonstrated its attacking capacity). It responded then with an emphatic 3-0 win that had Pellegrini purring abut how “compact” his side had been; he needs a similar reaction now.
City was desperately poor against Newcastle on Wednesday. It’s true it rested Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero, but still, it managed only three shots on target against a much-changed Newcastle – and it should have conceded a penalty and had Aleksandar Kolarov set off. Against West Ham it could at least argue it had missed opportunities: not against Newcastle. It looked, frankly, like a team that had lost its appetite and was going through the motions.
There are a lot of players in this squad aged 28 and over – it’s not an immediate issue, but City badly needs a couple of new signings to stick soon or there’s going to be an almighty rebuilding job to be done in two or three years.
A derby, of course, is a different matter, but after five games without defeat, including two draws salvaged in injury time, it’s United that goes into Sunday’s meeting in better spirits. The injury list remains lengthy and the defense is still a problem, but slowly the Van Gaal method is beginning to be absorbed.
Wayne Rooney and Falcao remain injury questions with foot and thigh problems, respectively, but other issues are being resolved. Perhaps most intriguing is the seeming re-emergence of Marouane Fellaini to provide the physicality that Van Gaal has admitted his side lacked in the early part of the season.
As City putters along as though this season is a victory lap for last year, United looks as if it’s building again. The title may already have gone for this season, but the scrap for Manchester’s future is only just beginning.