Neil Humphreys: Manchester City look primed to take EPL title
Guardiola men's can build platform for English Premier League challenge with Stones and defence
Pep Guardiola allowed himself a satisfied smile, but no more than that. He knows he might be laughing all the way to the English Premier League title.
Manchester City are coming. They're quickening their stride and preparing for a finishing kick. In a weary season mired in its own mediocrity, City look the least mediocre.
If that sounds like damning the title challengers with faint praise, then take stock of where we really are.
Liverpool and Manchester United's dull draw was only the latest anti-climactic example of a tiring season littered with erratic performances in silent stadiums.
Liverpool haven't scored in three league games and still remain in the title race. United spent much of the contest - and the season - sheltering behind the ball and still remain in the title race.
And Leicester City may be the poster boys for consistent inconsistency, beating the likes of Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur, whilst losing to Aston Villa and Fulham. They still remain in the title race.
With a title race like this, who needs a relegation battle?
It's easy to be flippant, but the decision to persist with a gruelling fixture list during a pandemic means the peculiarities cannot be ignored. They will decide the title.
For example, the strain on Liverpool's resources, thanks to the ongoing loss of matchday revenue, has clearly affected the spending plans of a club with no fit centre-backs.
Jordan Henderson and Fabinho performed heroically in defence, but the Reds pulled two midfielders from the line-up, which removed an established link between the lines, cutting supply to those sputtering forwards.
The Reds' front three are undoubtedly struggling, but a different formation, style and tempo have been imposed upon the club out of frantic necessity.
Thiago Alcantara, a sublime master in possession, may eventually encapsulate Liverpool's Plan B. But it's too much to ask him to execute a new blueprint overnight with a patched-up defence and exhausted forwards.
Indeed the theme of sagging strikers is hardly unique to Liverpool. At United, Marcus Rashford failed the No. 9 audition again, either drifting offside or losing possession. On Rashford's left, Anthony Martial reasserted his status as the club's baffling enigma.
The Frenchman meandered towards his inevitable substitution within an hour.
Leicester's Jamie Vardy and Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus also endured off-nights, despite the convincing victories of their respective clubs.
If only there was something to explain the sudden lethargy among players whose entire game is built around bursts of speed at regular intervals.
Maybe something happened to deny them regular rest and stop their managers from using - or buying - other strikers of a similar calibre.
Covid-19 is forcing every club to mostly make do with existing resources in the hope that the foundation holds.
And at the Etihad Stadium, that foundation is built on stones. As comeback stories go, the rise and fall and rise again of John Stones is one of the finest.
A year ago, the Englishman had fallen behind Fernandinho, a midfielder, in the pecking order of centre-backs. Now, he seems irreplaceable.
Stones' first league goals for City against Crystal Palace in a 4-0 win were arguably less important than another clean sheet - his fifth in six games alongside Ruben Dias. Between them, they've conceded just once in 10 matches in all competitions.
Guardiola still has No. 9 problems. Jesus spent more time running out of the Palace box than towards it and Sergio Aguero is no longer the force he once was.
But City's newfound defensive solidity gives them a marginal edge over their rivals and a confidence to attack with greater intensity.
Unlike Liverpool, who still look inhibited without the calming presence of Virgil van Dijk, City are rediscovering some of their characteristic swagger, safe in the knowledge that Dias and Stones are on hand if a move breaks down.
Kevin de Bruyne looks close to his best, spraying works of art across the pitch like Banksy let loose with a stencil set. The Belgian picked up his 100th assist for City against Palace.
Even Raheem Sterling seems liberated again.
They are not quite the Citizens of old, but a repeat of yesteryear's heroics is virtually impossible in front of a virtual crowd.
But Guardiola's men appear the most stable in an unstable season. It's always easier to make a case for the best defence.