MANCHESTER, England — After all the noise that surrounded Manchester City‘s start to the season, it has gone ominously quiet at the Etihad Stadium. Pep Guardiola’s future is sorted, the squad is near full strength, City are scoring again and, most importantly, they are winning. Regularly.
The latest victory, 2-0 over Fulham on Saturday in Guardiola’s 700th game as a manager, was expected but it was done in such a controlled manner that it should worry every other Premier League team with title ambitions. It’s now one defeat in their last 14 games in all competitions — a run stretching back to September — and four clean sheets in a row.
After 10 league fixtures in this unusual campaign, City are just three points behind leaders Tottenham and Liverpool, both of whom play on Sunday. The Shark Team, as Benjamin Mendy likes to call them, will be smelling blood.
“We struggled at the beginning of the season for many reasons, now four games, four clean sheets, it’s so important for us to maintain this solidity,” said Guardiola.
“This season looks like there will be a lot of teams in contention. Everyone can beat everyone. In this month it was important to get qualification for the Champions League, now we focus on the Premier League. It will be a long season.”
It was one of those days that have become common during Guardiola’s reign when the only negative was that City probably should have scored more. That they didn’t was down to Fulham goalkeeper Alphonse Areola, on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, who made three expert saves in the first half alone.
“It was a big performance,” said Fulham manager Scott Parker. “He made some big saves and it was needed. When you come to places like City you need a big performance from your goalkeeper and he did.”
Still, the France international walked off at half-time on a freezing afternoon in Manchester with his team already 2-0 down. Raheem Sterling got the first after five minutes, his first league goal since October, and then drew a penalty for the second after being tripped in the box by Joachim Andersen.
Kevin De Bruyne who (surprise, surprise) created the chance for Sterling, stepped up to send Areola the wrong way from the spot to score the 400th Premier League goal since Guardiola’s appointment in 2016. Guardiola showed his intent before a ball had been kicked by ordering his right-back, Joao Cancelo, to start the game on the halfway line, and by the time Jon Moss blew the whistle for half-time, City had recorded nine shots, five of which were on target.
In contrast, Ederson did not have to make any kind of save until the 76th minute. De Bruyne, who this week was selected as the top attacking midfielder in the world in FC 100, meanwhile, hit the bar in the second half and forced another good save from Areola on one of those afternoons where he just seemed to glide about and cause havoc for the opposition. His assist for Sterling was his sixth of the season and number 72 in the Premier League, eight more than any other player since his debut in the competition for Chelsea in 2013. City need to keep him fit if they are to wrestle the title back from Liverpool.
“We know the quality from Kevin in the goals and assists,” said Guardiola. “He’s so important for us. Just look at how he runs and fights as a modern footballer today. He is an example of this. He put all this together and every season it’s massive.”
It was the perfect start to a week that will end with the first Manchester derby of the season at Old Trafford. While Manchester United will prepare by fighting for their lives in the Champions League against RB Leipzig on Tuesday, Guardiola can rotate his squad against Marseille on Wednesday knowing top spot in Group C is already in the bag.
The Spaniard showed off the strength of his squad against Fulham, leaving Kyle Walker and £40 million summer signing Nathan Ake at home. Even still, he was able to field a back four which cost a combined £224.5m to assemble. Sergio Aguero is the only senior player currently injured but his knee problem is not serious and he could feature against United on Saturday.
It is not in Guardiola’s nature to write off games even if the result does not matter, but it was clear when he did not make a substitution against Fulham that he had already decided the likes of De Bruyne, Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Ruben Dias will not be needed against Marseilles.
“In the Champions League we have done the job but there is still prestige to play for and bonuses if we win,” he said.
“We have to respect the competition and you have to do it seriously but we are focused on the Premier League. What’s important is the feeling in the team. We will improve.”