Huddersfield a tricky test, but Manchester City momentum building
Manchester City set out for a tricky-looking fixture across the Pennines at Huddersfield this weekend with the weight of expectation beginning to weigh ever-heavier on their shoulders. Huddersfield, a bygone giant of English football, will host a City side hungry to join them in the ranks of the English game's historical greats.
Many words have been written about the near-impeccable start Pep Guardiola's side has made to the 2017-18 season, but the question begs to be asked: Just how long can they keep this run going?
While it is unreasonable to expect City to proceed into the meaty part of the season undefeated, it is clearly going to take something special to halt them in their tracks. In the past seven days, they have waltzed through a potentially taxing afternoon at 2015-16 Premier League champions Leicester and a midweek assignment against Feyenoord in the Champions League without breaking stride.
The performance at Leicester suggested a team at the top of its powers, with the home side unable to make any kind of meaningful impression on the smooth-running visitors. City's Dutch opponents may have made a better fist of it in midweek, but tellingly they still came away empty-handed.
It is perhaps more to these kinds of games, where the chips are down and the ball refuses to run, that we should look more closely. City have, time and time again this season, reduced their opponents to gawping spectators, as the ball is pinged around the pitch without a care in the world. Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal, supposed challengers at the top of the table, have all been reduced to bit part players against City's magisterial possession game.
Feyenoord, however, down on their luck in their domestic league and rock bottom of Champions League Group F, made life difficult for City with a performance of solid, well-structured percentage play that went a long way to keeping City at bay. Only a cleverly worked 88th minute winner in extremis off the right foot of Raheem Sterling separated the sides at the end of 90 minutes.
City, with a below strength side, had put in a below-par performance, but they had also run into a team that was unyielding in its defending and pragmatic in its attacking forays. Unyielding and pragmatic are certainly watchwords for Huddersfield Town too, although the presence of David Wagner on the bench has added other, less readily associated qualities to a gritty, persistent Yorkshire side.
Huddersfield have already dealt with second-placed Manchester United, beating them 2-1 on Oct. 21 with a display of spirited, well-organised football that was too much for Jose Mourinho's high fliers. Despite losing a little momentum since then, Huddersfield have added another home victory to their tally (a single goal victory over West Brom), while losing heavily at Liverpool (3-0) and at Bournemouth (4-0). Although they have slipped to 10th place in the league, home form has been the base for their buoyant start to life with the big boys.
City, bolstered by the returns of David Silva and Leroy Sane among others, can expect a searching examination of their qualities this weekend at a venue they have not always fared too well. Curiously, on a historical note, since City's record-breaking 10-1 second division win over this opponent in 1987, they have only recorded one more league win, a 3-1 second tier away win in 1998. There has been a smattering of FA Cup ties between the sides and little else over the last 30 years, with a meagre total of just seven league encounters since that 10-1 win.
Having spent so many years floating around the second and third tiers of English football, Huddersfield are now making up for lost time, playing an explosive brand of football under their forward-thinking German coach.
In recent weeks, City have started to ship more goals, but it is questionable whether Huddersfield will have the power to break through in the manner that Arsenal, Napoli and West Brom have managed in their recent encounters with City.
While John Stones' calm presence will be missed at the heart of the defence, the return of Vincent Kompany alongside Nicolas Otamendi at Leicester a week ago seemed to have done the trick. City's continued strong health depends on the ability of replacements to step in and do an equally polished job when first choice stars are absent. Over a long season, this will be critical and will be fully tested once again at the John Smith's Stadium this weekend.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.