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Soccer

Manchester City Is Ready To Pounce

9:02 AM EST on February 6, 2024

Phil Foden of Manchester City celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Premier League match between Brentford FC and Manchester City at Brentford Community Stadium on February 05, 2024 in Brentford, England.
Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

On Monday, Manchester City walked into Brentford's West London stadium and, after going down 1-0 in the 21st minute, walked out with a resounding 3-1 win. Normally, a mid-season Premier League match between the third- and 15th-place sides wouldn't be all that notable, but the timing and circumstances of this particular showdown make City's win feel much bigger than a mere three points, instead serving as a stern message to the rest of the title hopefuls that it's still Manchester City's league to lose.

Let's start with the more immediate news coming out of the blue side of Manchester this week. Monday's match was the first time City's starting lineup included both Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland since Aug. 11. De Bruyne missed four months earlier in the season with a hamstring injury, and by the time he returned on Dec. 17, Haaland had been knocked out with a "bone stress reaction" in his foot that kept him out for most of December and all of January. Reuniting City's most important playmaker with its most dangerous scorer was reason enough to note Monday's match.

Also of note is the fact that Phil Foden is very good. The 23-year-old—how is he still only 23?!—notched a hat trick against the Bees, scoring off of a beautiful De Bruyne cross to give City a 2-1 lead in the 53rd minute and playing a silky smooth give-and-go with Haaland for the exclamation point in the 70th:

(Foden also scored the equalizer prior to those two goals, but that one was less stunning; he simply got on the end of a loose ball in the box and rolled the ball into the net.) Just having De Bruyne and Haaland back opened up a lot of space for their teammates, and though Foden himself claimed all three goals, it was a stellar showing for the entire Manchester City attack. For the match, City had 72 percent of the possession and out-shot Brentford 25 to nine. It was a typical demolition, and though Brentford did strike first, it never felt like there was a league-shaking upset in the cards.

Instead, it felt like City had asserted its dominance, both in the moment and for the season. This Monday evening match made that clear, and City's current status as the juggernaut of the Premier League was bolstered by a different match in London the day prior. On Sunday, league-leading Liverpool traveled to North London for a first-against-second showdown against Arsenal. Though the quality of the match didn't quite live up to its billing, it still proved majorly important in what is shaping up to be a white-hot title race.

Two horrendous defensive mistakes led directly to goals—one for each team—and the action, though excitingly back-and-forth in possession and on the break, felt like two teams playing completely out of control. Arsenal won 3-1, thanks to Bukayo Saka's rebound goal in the 14th minute and Leandro Trossard's 92nd minute dagger. Arsenal was a deserving winner, but both teams came out of the match knowing that there's work to do to claim the role of title favorite.

Liverpool will likely point to its many, many injury- and tournament-related absences for the lackluster defeat, and it would not be wrong to do so. Mohamed Salah, who was injured while playing with Egypt at the Africa Cup of Nations, is clearly the most important Pool Boy, and Wataru Endo, who's also been busy on international duty with Japan in the Asian Cup, would have helped slow down Arsenal's midfield trio from doing whatever it wanted, particularly on counter-attacks. Elsewhere, rising star right back Conor Bradley missed Sunday's match due to the death of his father, inserting still-recovering Trent Alexander-Arnold into the starting lineup.

Meanwhile, Arsenal should feel great about the win thanks to some injury absences of its own. It took a very stupid own goal for the Gunners to even concede, and otherwise they played Liverpool tough, dominating the first quarter-hour until Saka's opening goal before grinding out a big home win that put them in second place, if only for a day.

That's the thing, really. While Liverpool and Arsenal are both hurting, as is expected from any side at this point in the season, Manchester City is just getting back to full strength—and a full strength City is terrifying. Brentford isn't the toughest of opposition, and the Bees did hold the lead for almost 30 minutes, but it didn't matter. City is almost flying under the radar this season to date, what with Liverpool's great run of form, Arsenal's back-and-forth roller coaster, and even Aston Villa, currently still in fourth place, all taking up more attention. Further down the table, Tottenham's brave endurance of its own injury crisis, Manchester United's slow deterioration into a mid-table side, and Chelsea's whole thing have been more interesting to follow.

Manchester City doesn't need to be interesting, though. Frankly, it hasn't often been interesting to watch them roll over almost everyone in England during the Pep Guardiola era. But turning away from a rampaging bulldozer won't save the neighborhood, and it looks like the Mancs have the thing all revved up and pointing in that direction. Though City is two points behind Liverpool right now, the defending champions have one game in hand. That puts City in control, and though it's unlikely that everyone involved will simply win all their games from here to the end of the season, that type of advantage can be something to springboard City into one of its trademark winning streaks while the rest of the contenders fall apart due to the grueling nature of the Premier League.

It's not a sure thing. De Bruyne seems to miss more games than he plays in these days, and foot injuries for a striker of Haaland's size could be something to worry about long-term. But City is still so deep that it can win without either of those players, and especially if at least one of them is on the field to pull strings and/or strain the strings of the net. Liverpool will get Salah back at some point, and Endo too, and one would think that the club will not see this many injuries going forward. Arsenal too should be back at close to full strength sometime soon. The question remains the same, though: Is that enough to topple City? In the last six seasons, the answer has (mostly) been a resounding "no," and even in a quiet-by-its-standards season like this one, City looks to be in full control once again.

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