IT is still premature to start talking about the possibility of Manchester City winning an unprecedented quadruple this season, but that time is getting ever nearer.
This week Pep Guardiola’s side take a two-goal advantage into a last 16 Champions League clash with Borussia Monchengladbach and then head down the M62 for a FA Cup dust-up with Everton and if both challenges are successfully navigated it would be remiss not to at least assess where the Blues are, and what is left to conquer.
Having all-but-wrapped up a fifth Premier League title and with Tottenham to play in a League Cup final next month, City would then have a further five opponents to better in the remaining competitions to achieve the nigh-on impossible.
Not that Everton at the weekend is a mere staging post on City’s route to becoming immortal of course, nor for that matter are Spurs in the Carabao.
The Toffees have impressed and substantially improved this term and indeed will have their own eye on the history books and their place in it having last won a trophy 26 years ago. Given that their average league position since Paul Rideout nodded his winner at Wembley has been ninth in the top-flight that represents a drawn-out failure and Carlo Ancelotti will be acutely mindful of the need to bring silverware to the club over and above steady progress being made in the league. If he wasn’t previously aware of that fact then Big Dunc – Rideout’s strike partner that day – will have no doubt clued him in.
Which makes it a shame then for the home side that they’re the home side on Saturday because Goodison Park has been anything but kind to Everton of late. Remember the theory that briefly did the rounds when the Toffees got off to a cracking start to the campaign, scoring 11 in their opening three at the famous old ground? With the stands empty the players were spared the scrutiny and impatience of a demanding fan-base and subsequently felt they could express themselves and take risks. That was the claim made back then.
Oh, for a boisterous, proverbial kick up the backside now though courtesy of the Gwaldys Street because Everton have won just one of their last seven matches on home soil.
It’s a poor return made all the more perplexing when compared to their excellent away form that has seen scalps taken at Spurs, Leicester and Liverpool and to put this disparity in stark contrast we only need acknowledge the form tables. Overall, Everton have the fourth best record on the road in the top-flight this term. Yet only the five bottom clubs have inferior home records.
Switching our attention to the visitors it doesn’t surprise to learn that City boast imperious form on their travels. They after all have lost only once since late November. So perhaps it is more pertinent to concentrate on their recent victory at Goodison in the league, a 3-1 triumph that saw Everton toil throughout yet still concede 16 shots to three. "It was hard, almost impossible. It is very difficult to compete with them," Ancelotti admitted soon after.
Which leads us to the burning question, one that only Manchester United can answer in 2021 and that is how do you defeat this brilliant creation that is in full swaggering flow right now?
"I can see hungry eyes, everyone is so hungry for the titles"
Oleksandr Zinchenko believes Manchester City could win the quadruple this season as the players have hungry eyes for the titles pic.twitter.com/QwGg2Ontom
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) March 15, 2021
Aside from the obvious application of ability from a well-assembled squad it is the multifaceted nature of Pep’s revised and revived creation that is downing opposition on a twice-weekly basis. Stick a man on Rodri – as Fulham did last week – and Bernardo Silva will run the show. Somehow shackle De Bruyne and Gundogan will ghost into the box and add to his goal tally. Honestly, it must be like playing a speeded-up version of Whac-A-Mole for ninety minutes straight.
To illustrate this multitude of threats City have had 16 different goal-scorers this season in the league. Six of them have been defenders.
Yet for all the 99 problems City pose going forward hope still resides for Everton and that’s because the champions-elect are finally started to creak a little at the other end.
When the Blues’ league season is broken down into six groups of five games it is possible to determine via the number of goals conceded how they initially struggled before forming an impenetrable carapace with Stones and Dias consistently outstanding. Only now that parsimony is lessening.
Those numbers incidentally are 8, 3, 2, 0, 2, 4 and even if a third of the total have come from the spot – City are reluctantly on course to smash a Premier League record this year in conceding the highest percentage of goals from penalties – it is still encouragement for Everton’s dangerous duo of Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison who have both rediscovered their scoring boots in recent weeks. It would be nonsensical to suggest that the bad old days of shipping in five against Leicester may return anytime soon. But City are fallible.
Ultimately, this game will be decided by two factors, the first of which can only be guessed at; the second is shaped by statistics.
Let’s begin with the unknown formation and line-up Guardiola will deploy because the Catalan has previous at the tail-end of seasons in ‘doing a Pep’ and trying out something new and funky. With four fronts still being contested there is a small chance he may over-think his selection here to City’s cost. Everton, for their part, will surely go full strength though with Doucoure and Rodriguez out they are weakened regardless.
Then there’s the visitors’ severe aversion to being breached early and the Toffees’ propensity to getting on the front foot from the off. Guardiola’s men have conceded only four times inside the opening 25 minutes of games in the league this season. Everton meanwhile have scored over a quarter of their goals in that time period.
One of these habits must be broken at Goodison and the initial exchanges therefore will be key.