Upcoming matches crucial for Manchester City, Pep Guardiola
Four of Manchester City's next six fixtures are against Arsenal (twice), Chelsea and Manchester United. By the time that little lot is over, experts and fans alike will be able to carve their season reviews in stone. Pep Guardiola's first season in charge at the Etihad, with its chaotic highs and lows, haphazard mistakes and joyful successes, will have been given its final makeover.
It is perhaps to the two fixtures with Arsenal that the coach will be looking with particular intent, as the North Londoners threaten to be the most supine of the three A-list opponents coming up in these critical matches. A win this weekend will set City up for the game at Stamford Bridge, where only an away victory can do anything to upset the Chelsea applecart even slightly. Arsenal, of course, also provide the opposition in the semifinal of the FA Cup, which means the Wembley fixture now takes precedence over all else, representing City's only realistic chance of silverware this season.
With a home local derby squeezed into the schedule, City have a busy and season-defining four weeks ahead of them.
It can be argued that, since shipping four goals at Everton in January, Guardiola's side has performed well. The defence has been tightened, results have taken an upturn and form has -- to a great extent -- returned. The critical lapse in the south of France has dented that good feeling, and City must now build up a new head of steam to tackle the run-in.
There are still plenty of targets to aim for, despite the fact that Chelsea already have the look of champions.
The FA Cup
This represents an opportunity to capture the club's first trophy under Guardiola. The same competition marked Roberto Mancini's introduction as a trophy-winning City manager, so it is not to be sniffed at. City have won the cup on five occasions and have been runners-up another five times. Reaching the final would maintain a growing Wembley tradition that has seen the club play in at least one showpiece game at the ground every season since Mancini's team lifted the 2011 FA Cup vs. Stoke City. It would also represent quite a feat as City are the only northern side remaining in a final four made lopsided by the London elite.
If Chelsea look uncatchable, then second place is up for grabs. City's record in the past six seasons in the Premier League cannot be matched by any of their rivals. Final placings of third, first, second, first, second and fourth form a higher average finish than any other team in the Premier League. Last season's fade to fourth place under Manuel Pellegrini was City's worst finish since 2009-10's fifth place under Mark Hughes.
Avoiding Champions League playoff rounds
Although this season's pre-qualifier against Steaua Bucharest ushered in an early high point, with City's fast possession football providing an impressive spectacle, the club will want to avoid such unnecessary traumas next time around.
Bridging two eras
With players signed under Mancini and Pellegrini reaching the end of the road, Guardiola's task will be made simpler if City can make the transition from the club's first modern-day trophy glut to the Catalan's reign with a pot on the mantelpiece. The six-year period has produced two Premier League titles, two League Cups and an FA Cup -- unprecedented success in City's long and error-strewn history.
What is envisaged as a new and even more successful spell under Guardiola would get the boost it needs with an FA Cup triumph at Wembley in May. One only has to look at the effect winning the same trophy had on Mancini's next season to understand its potential worth. It would also provide a suitably grand platform for some of the club's great servants over this period to bow out. The days are numbered for the likes of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, Gael Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov. Going out in a blaze of glory would be an appropriate farewell to a generation of players who have served the club so well.
Reasons abound to maintain focus and push on towards the finishing line. The oft-mentioned squad overhaul coming this summer will be made easier as outgoing personnel exit on a relative high and the new influx arrive at a club that is buoyant and hungry for more success next season.
Sheikh Mansour and the City board will once again be setting their sights high come next August, with the holy grail of Champions League success still at the top of priorities. The Premier League trophy will have avoided the clutches of the City captain for three seasons, too, a gap that the club's hierarchy will not want to see prolonged.
Guardiola's bedding-in process might not have been as smooth as he had anticipated, but the transition to 2017-18 will be made more comfortable by a strong charge to the tape this season.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.