Just when there’s the slightest hint that Manchester City could be having a wobble, they get a crucial boost at just the right time. It might be enough to snuff out those faint hopes that neutrals have for a Premier League title race.
City went away for the winter break a fortnight ago on somewhat of a downbeat note.
Their 12-game winning streak came to an end at the hands of a spirited Southampton side in a 1-1 draw, in which City were unusually lacking in their typical ruthlessness in front of goal.
Wins for both Chelsea and Liverpool on the same weekend closed the gap at the top for the first time in weeks and gave oxygen to the dying embers that were the hope of a competitive season.
The title is far from a foregone conclusion as this stage as Pep Guardiola has repeatedly stressed.
The past two weeks gave the vast majority of the City squad some much needed time to rest and recover amid a brutal season and ahead of the resumption of the Champions League, but it also meant that City couldn’t get straight back on the horse and return to winning ways immediately.
Then the first game back came around on Saturday, an FA Cup fifth-round tie. While not many predicted City wouldn’t win, they were up against Championship high-flyers Fulham, who had scored 23 goals in their last five games.
There was a whiff of an upset in the air and that became a positive stench when Fabio Carvalho tapped in the Cottagers’ opener, finishing off a brilliant move that cut City wide open, after just four minutes.
But just a mere 120 seconds later and Ilkay Gundogan whipped out the air fresheners, turning in the leveler and setting the Blues on their way to a 4-1 win.
The goal was set up in wonderful fashion by a returning Riyad Mahrez, as he brought a looping ball down with his knee before finding the German to steer it home.
John Stones then gave City the lead before Mahrez himself sealed the victory with a four-goal brace in the second-half, his first from the penalty spot and a finish across the goalkeeper after being teed up by Kevin De Bruyne for the second.
The strikes extended Mahrez’ lead at the top of the Blues’ scoring charts for the season and his return could not have come at a better time.
Mahrez endured a difficult January while away to compete in the African Cup of Nations. His native Algeria were the holders but he had a dismal showing in their group, failing to win any of their games against Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone. They finished bottom with just a single point and headed home shockingly early.
The forward missed the draw with the Saints as he was afforded a week holiday, but is now back in the fold and City are benefitting massively.
Just when it looked as though a blip could become a problem, Mahrez was on hand to quash the nerves and ensure there wasn’t a confidence-wrecking upset akin to the one Manchester United suffered on Friday night.
Chelsea and Liverpool may have been given a glimmer of hope two weeks ago, but as they labored in beating even more lowly opponents than Fulham this weekend, that glimmer is just a little dimmer as City have cleared shaken off their malaise.
Now City head back into Premier League action this week, and soon the European knockout stages, with a replenished squad and a renewed belief after not allowing a tiny hiccup to derail them.
Mahrez was just the boost they needed.
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