Neil Humphreys: Manchester City in mood to win the lot
Guardiola's men are finding form in every competition
The greatest trick that Pep Guardiola ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist in the title race.
He does. Suddenly, he's a major presence everywhere.
Emerging from the shadows of Covid-19 outbreaks and early-seasons wobbles, Manchester City look like contenders, for just about everything.
|MANCHESTER CITY||BIRMINGHAM CITY|
|(Bernardo Silva 8, 15, Phil Foden 33)|
Last night's 3-0 stroll past Birmingham City in the FA Cup was not only a thoroughly entertaining exhibition of quick, one-touch football, but also a statement of one manager's intent.
The victory felt like a culmination of a week-long comeback.
Last weekend, Guardiola managed a wry smile when asked for his thoughts on being back in the hunt for the English Premier League title.
In a reply dipped in sarcasm, he expressed his gratitude for being taken seriously again.
Less than a fortnight ago, a Covid-19 outbreak threatened to end City's campaign. The academy and training facilities were closed and fixtures rejigged. Guardiola's squad options changed on a daily basis.
City's season had the look of a damage limitation exercise to most rational observers, except for their manager.
In a single week, Guardiola has returned to the title race, reached the League Cup final and steered City into the fourth round of the FA Cup with an impressive insistence on attacking football without compromise.
He hasn't played safe once.
Against Birmingham, currently 18th in the Championship and in dire form, Guardiola made just four changes from the side that defeated United in the League Cup when he would've been forgiven for resting the lot.
And City attacked from the first.
Utilising their 4-1-4-1 formation, City made the most of the excellent Rodri marshalling the lines, with Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez surging forward.
They needed just over half an hour to end the contest - scoring three exquisite goals in 33 minutes - in a powerful display that seemed to be less about Birmingham and more about Liverpool and company in the EPL.
Rivals should take note. City's energised men are finding their heads whilst others are losing theirs.
Bernardo Silva picked a balletic half-volley, catching the ball at shoulder height, to score his first of the season. His second ended a 24-pass move, including a flick from Mahrez that took the breath away.
And Foden continued his journey from boy to monster with a low, ruthless strike into the far corner, underlining his readiness to rule.
If City's dominance against lowly competition came as no surprise, then the manner of the victory was less expected.
They're in the mood again. While Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and even Tottenham Hotspur take turns to pass the baton of exasperating inconsistency, City continue to close the gap with minimal fuss.
Six consecutive wins in all competitions leave them four points from the summit, with two games in hand, to complement their steady progress in the cups.
The defence is finally settled, allowing Ruben Dias and the resurgent John Stones to take a half each without breaking sweat. Silva, Foden, Kevin de Bruyne and Mahrez combined effectively to win the game early and allow Guardiola to rest legs and make substitutions.
But one of the replacements remains the only question mark.
Gabriel Jesus lasted 75 minutes after recently testing positive for Covid-19, so it seems insensitive to mention the Brazilian's lethargy. But he was peripheral and Sergio Aguero was ruled out before kick-off.
A focal point up front remains a work in progress. Jesus and Aguero's struggles are the weak links in the club's recovery.
Perhaps City will work around them, as they essentially did against Birmingham.
A 15th clean sheet epitomises their new defensive fortitude and an effervescent midfield looks a match for anyone. They are fun to watch again.
Before Christmas, no one was taking City seriously. Today, Guardiola will seriously think that his players have a shot at every trophy on offer.
LAST NIGHT'S OTHER RESULTS:
- Barnsley 2 Tranmere 0
- Bristol City 2 Portsmouth 1
- Cheltenham 2 Mansfield 1 (after extra time)
- Crawley 3 Leeds 0