Manchester City: Champions turn up heat in title race

Phil Foden scored his second hat-trick for Manchester City

Manchester City’s giant shadow is looming large in the rear-view mirror of their rivals as they make one of those familiar charges that turns up the psychological pressure and invariably ends in success.

It is that time of the season again. It is the time when Pep Guardiola’s reigning champions gather their forces for the home run and ask the searching questions of those such as Liverpool and Arsenal who hope to beat them to the big prizes.

And this was the inescapable feeling once more as City recorded a ninth successive win in all competitions with a 3-1 win at Brentford, a victory achieved with much to spare despite trailing to Neal Maupay’s breakaway goal until the closing seconds of the first half.

City are now in second place, two points behind leaders Liverpool after their defeat at Arsenal on Sunday. One of the sub-plots of that result was that it put City’s Premier League destiny back in their own hands, which is how they like it.

They will go top, for a few hours at least, if they beat struggling Everton at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday lunchtime before Liverpool face Burnley at Anfield. And City still have a game in hand.

Liverpool and Arsenal, both top-class sides having outstanding campaigns, will have a huge say in the closing months of this season but plenty will feel they have seen this movie before and on most occasions it has a happy ending for City before the credits roll.

If this scoreline gives the appearance of a close game, forget it.

City, perfectly understandably, were streets ahead of Brentford and it took a remarkable performance from Bees’ keeper Mark Flekken to keep them out in a first half during which the reigning champions had 17 shots on goal, 10 of which were on target and mostly kept out brilliantly by the defiant Dutchman.

This was until Phil Foden broke through with virtually the last kick of the half, the England star then getting deserved reward for a virtuoso display with the second senior hat-trick of his career.

The pre-match talk was of Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland starting together for the first time since the opening Friday night of the season at Burnley on 11 August but it was Foden who stole the show.

Foden was the catalyst for all of City’s best work, creative on the ball and providing three smooth finishes, ample compensation for main marksman Haaland not getting on the scoresheet as he works his way back to full power following a foot injury.

In the wider context, Foden’s performance also adds to the growing body of evidence that insists he simply has to start for England at Euro 2024, especially in view of Marcus Rashford’s problems on and off the field this season. If the choice was made now, there would be no choice.

City’s seasons invariably follow a pattern and one is emerging here, confirmed with this run of wins to move back towards familiar territory at the top of the table.

It could be argued there have been spells when they have not been at their best this season but here we are again.

Last season they were top of the table with 48 points from 22 games, level on points with Arsenal, before they ground down the Gunners inexorably and hauled them in to win the title.

It is around now that City, like a thoroughbred timing its run to perfection under Guardiola’s guiding hand, move to a different level. It looks like it is happening again.

City, like all great sides, have strength of character as well as quality and this was the fourth Premier League game in succession where they have gone behind away from home but turned the game around to win.

If there is an area of concern for Guardiola and City, it is that they have only kept one clean sheet in their last 12 Premier League games while their tally of just five shut-outs in 22 games is their lowest since 2016-17.

This is not ideal but it is a problem more easily solved when you have the array of creative riches Guardiola has at his disposal.

There is long way to go in the Premier League before the title is decided.

Liverpool and Arsenal have shown enough to suggest they can go all the way to the finishing line and push Guardiola’s team to the limit – but City’s growing confidence, authority and track record means they will face a mammoth task to deny a side who have gone over this course and distance with such success in recent years.

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