MANCHESTER: Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City will not retain their Premier League title barring a spectacular Liverpool implosion, but the form book suggests the Catalan could still end up celebrating a trophy-laden season.
The defending league champions have won nine of their past 10 games in all competitions, their only defeat since early December coming when they were reduced to 10 men and lost 3-2 at Wolves.
The visit of Crystal Palace on Saturday is followed by a trip to face Sheffield United before they take on Fulham at home in the fourth round of the FA Cup and Manchester United in the second leg of their League Cup semifinal.
City hold a 3-1 lead in that tie in a competition in which they have not lost a game since October 2016, an extraordinary run that makes Guardiola’s side overwhelming favourites to win the League Cup for a third consecutive season.
Guardiola, whose side won a domestic treble last season, will be relishing the return of influential centrehalf Aymeric Laporte following a knee injury he suffered at the end of August.
The French international’s absence has been a major factor in City’s difficulties this season, although he has been making impressive strides in first-team training.
An original prediction of a February return has been brought forward slightly, with Laporte now tipped to be back before the end of the month, possibly in the League Cup derby meeting with United on Jan 29.
The 25-year-old’s return would allow Brazilian Fernandinho to return to his holding midfield role, bolstering City in two areas of the pitch.
Even more good news is on the horizon, with German international winger Leroy Sane making a rapid recovery from a knee ligament injury that has sidelined him since the first week in August.
The 24-year-old is in solo training but is expected to join first-team sessions imminently and a return to competitive action next month is now a realistic target.
“I think he is close,” said Guardiola last week. “I spoke with him two days ago and he said to me he is training alone with the ball, he is doing incredibly well.
“His knee looks really good so I don’t think it is going to take too much time to come back to train with us. I think in the next few weeks he can come back.”
The return of Laporte and Sane could be crucial as City prepare for the return of the Champions League, which they have never won.
City face a two-legged last-16 tie against Real Madrid, with the first leg taking place in Spain on Feb 26.
Guardiola, who was twice a European champion while in charge of Barcelona, has constantly tried to downplay the importance of winning the trophy, although the club’s owners have made no secret of their desire to win the continent’s biggest club prize.
With a top-four finish in the Premier League all but guaranteed, Guardiola can afford to rotate his squad in Premier League games and focus on the three-cup competitions still within his reach.
Raheem Sterling is one player who has benefited from being left out of the starting line-up, keeping him fresh for more important tests to come.
And, after a slow start to his City career, Joao Cancelo has been trusted in recent weeks to play games in defence, allowing Guardiola to ensure his backline is not weakened by further injury and fatigue.