Neil Humphreys: City turning EPL into a farce
Defending champions' dominance leaves a sour taste
The English Premier League has morphed into Formula 1. It's a procession for the uber-wealthy to show off their gleaming machines. The richest always win.
Those who are paid to pretend otherwise will argue that the rich-poor divide is nothing new. Apart from Leicester City, paupers don't win English Premier League titles.
But this is different. Manchester City are different.
Their inevitable victory at Watford yesterday morning (Singapore time) was the latest exercise in economic blitzkrieg, a cynical attempt to whitewash a foreign power's reputation, using Pep Guardiola's mavericks as laundrymen.
City won with reserves, while leaving plenty in reserve.
Arsene Wenger's Invincibles and even Sir Alex Ferguson's dynasties couldn't rest an entire back four for a must-win EPL fixture on the road.
Guardiola did at Watford. He also gave Raheem Sterling the night off. He didn't risk Sergio Aguero's slight injury either. He made six changes from the starting XI against Bournemouth.
All managers rotate, but this was a sleight of hand to rival David Copperfield, switching six moving parts without the audience noticing. Did anyone really spot the switch?
Of course not. Guardiola swops oiled cogs in his flawless set-up like Lewis Hamilton's mechanics swop engines. Rivals look like they're going backwards in comparison, unable to compete with such resources.
Guardiola's squad rotations can come across as gloating. He can call upon the rested Vincent Kompany and John Stones at a time when Manchester United and Tottenham can barely cobble together a pair of fit centre-backs.
The EPL has long since given up the pretence of a level playing field, but the gap between the haves and the have-everythings at City creates an almost vertical chasm.
So in a bid to sustain interest, we must pretend that a non-competitive competition remains engaging, clutching at pretty straws to distract from the less salubrious aspects of City's dominance, i.e. how and why they get their billions.
The two Silva linings - David and Bernardo - were on hand at Watford to warm the most cynical hearts and Riyad Mahrez entertained with his breath-taking footwork (as he should for £60 million or S$104.5m).
But to focus entirely on their artistry is rather like obsessing over Hamilton's hand-eye co-ordination inside an F1 car, anything to draw attention away from the unpalatable reality that they are almost amusing themselves.
The game is already in their favour. Barring an unexpected blunder, their race is won long before the chequered flag. How entertaining can such a non-competition really be?
Liverpool are straining every nerve and sinew just to cling to City's coattails, but Guardiola's rotated wonders are barely breaking sweat.
They've dropped just four points all season and remain undefeated, despite missing their most accomplished midfielder (Kevin de Bruyne).
Imagine Arsenal without Lucas Torreira or Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich with an entirely different back four in an important league fixture. You can't because it wouldn't happen.
Guardiola has argued that City's sequence of 13 matches in 44 days necessitates such radical chopping and changing, but his line-up at Watford practically rubbed his rivals' noses in his own wealth.
City are already an uncomfortable Abu Dhabi PR exercise, a blatant example of "sportswashing", using the EPL's popularity to clean up the country's image. Never mind the human rights abuses, just look at all those shiny trophies.
Abu Dhabi has already bought the EPL and seems determined to buy the Champions League, too - at any cost.
Reports suggest City could be banned from next season's Champions League, following Uefa's conclusion that the club misled the European body over their finances.
This is not the first time. In 2014, City were fined for violating Financial Fair Play regulations, literally buying their way out of trouble, a luxury that they can always afford (and perhaps a reason why lessons haven't been learnt).
According to reports, the club manipulated sponsorship revenue from Etihad Airways, the Abu Dhabi state-owned airline, which is the naming rights sponsor of City's stadium, training campus and jerseys.
The money allegedly went back to the money, ridiculing the quaint idea of fair play and fair competition.
City's intricate passing between the two Silvas and Mahrez remains hypnotic, but at some point the spell must be broken. We must wake up and smell a one-team league being controlled from afar, with grotesque levels of wealth being funnelled into an Abu Dhabi branding makeover.
Guardiola's decision to make six changes from one EPL cruise to the next is a cause for concern, not celebration.
Should City fail to drop points at Chelsea on Sunday morning (Singapore time), then we might want to consider a more competitive leadership battle in the future. Something like Formula 1.
WATFORD: Foster, Femenia, Kabasele, Cathcart, Holebas, Chalobah (Deulofeu 63), Success (Gray 75), Hughes (Quina 52), Doucoure, Pereyra, Deeney
MAN CITY: Ederson, Walker, Stones, Kompany (Otamendi 83), Delph, B. Silva, Fernandinho, D. Silva (Guendogan 73), Mahrez, G. Jesus (Laporte 89), Sane