City must prove setback is temporary

LONDON • There have been blips and disappointments before but, for the Manchester City Pep Guardiola would consider his own, the first searching questions have been asked.

Now it is about whether they can cope with expectation, rediscover defensive solidity and also that frisson of excitement in attack.

The pressure on City in the Premier League is finally on.

Defeat by Crystal Palace was not the same as the Champions League quarter-final loss to Liverpool last season when the title was all but sewn up, or the reverse at Manchester United's hands that merely delayed that coronation.

Nor could it be bracketed alongside those upsets in Guardiola's first term when the emphasis was about adjustment and there was the realisation that changes needed to be implemented.

The damage at the Etihad was clear with the straight-talking Fabian Delph describing Saturday's loss as a "massive setback", even if Palace boss Roy Hodgson downplayed the idea that a significant blow had been administered.

The truth lies somewhere in between.

NOT TIME TO PANIC

It's a massive setback but it's a very long season. Most games we are competing against ourselves to do better and the next game will be no different.

FABIAN DELPH, City midfielder, on their mid-season wobble.

This felt significant simply by virtue of the standards the English champions have previously set, and allowing for the relentlessness of leaders Liverpool.

It was also meaningful given that it is now two league defeats in three games in which they have conceded six goals, one fewer than Jurgen Klopp's unbeaten side have leaked all season.

Whether Palace's success, a mix of clinical finishing and defensive nous, shakes City awake or leaves them at a lull, not even Guardiola will know as yet.

That, in itself, will nag at a manager who craves control. As will the reality that the strain they are under is of their making ahead of tomorrow's league trip to Leicester, where a negative result, coupled with a positive one for the Reds could turn the "setback" into a "disaster".

City have injury doubts over Fernandinho, David Silva and Vincent Kompany, with the trio missing the Palace upset and Guardiola might again be forced to play defender John Stones in midfield - which Hodgson's players exploited - at the King Power Stadium.

The return fixture against Klopp's men on Jan 3 looms large and City's aberrations mean it is becoming a game they have to win.

But, before Liverpool, Leicester and the rejuvenated Southampton away on Sunday promise to be testing assignments for a side currently experiencing a wobble.

Proving they are indeed a side for all the seasons - and not just one - is a challenge Guardiola would not have anticipated facing a few weeks ago.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2018, with the headline 'City must prove setback is temporary'. Print Edition | Subscribe