Pep Guardiola, Manchester City in desperate need of a strong finish
As Chelsea and Tottenham chase the ultimate prize, preseason title favourites Manchester City find themselves in an increasingly sloppy struggle to stay in the top four. Another pallid performance at The Riverside, where a desperate but energetic Middlesbrough side held City to a 2-2 draw -- and twice led them -- means City must rely on home form to finish the job.
Of the four games left, three are at home and make up the next three fixtures, before the curtain falls on a desperately disappointing season at Watford on May 21.
City entertain Crystal Palace, Leicester City and West Brom and must be looking to gain a maximum nine points from the three fixtures.
If City can achieve what is expected of them in those matches, it will almost certainly be enough to finish above Liverpool to clinch third place in the table and with it automatic qualification for the Champions League. Achieving what is expected of them has, however, been something of a struggle in Pep Guardiola's first season in England.
Widely expected to be the team to beat last August, City's perfect start quickly ran into trouble and it has long been clear that the Catalan coach's run of success with Barcelona and Bayern Munich would not so easily be repeated at the Etihad. It seems a very long time ago now when City registered 10 straight wins in all competitions to launch a bright new era under Guardiola. Not until a thrilling 3-3 draw at Celtic Park on Sept. 28 did an admiring public see anything other than victory.
That game in Scotland had produced such fantastic entertainment that nobody much worried about a sudden draw putting a spanner in the works. However, when it was followed by the first defeat of the season -- Tottenham figuring out City's system with ease at White Hart Lane -- the first alarm bells began to ring.
The cave-in at Tottenham was immediately followed by a ridiculously one-sided home draw with Everton, when the visiting goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg managed somehow to save two penalties, along with everything else that was thrown at him. When Barcelona thumped four past City with no reply in the Camp Nou in the following game, it was clear that the honeymoon was over and serious work was needed.
Even then, few can have realised that an apparently temporary tail-off in form would herald a season of deep and lasting disappointment. Perhaps -- owing to the circumstances -- one of City's most disappointing in recent memory. The stakes had been set high and the season's launch had appeared to vindicate all the glorious predictions, yet here we were staring at a suddenly malfunctioning unit with more problems than one cared to list.
Those problems -- broadly put, a rickety defence, ludicrous goalkeeping problems and a super-profligate attack -- have dogged City ever since, as they wind down the 2016-17 campaign back in fourth place with serious work needed to stay ahead of a distinctly average Manchester United and an end-of-era Arsenal. Even Liverpool, clearly still a work in progress and a team with a penchant for losing to a host of inferior sides, still sit ahead of City in the Premier League table.
Now Guardiola faces a new challenge to seal his first year in England: to match the strong finishes which have become a City tradition over recent years.
In winning the title ahead of Liverpool in 2013-14, City closed with a draw and five straight wins after a 3-2 defeat at Anfield on April 13.
In 2014-15 they finished one better with six straight wins taking City over the finishing line. Defeat to United at Old Trafford (4-2) on April 12 was the last time Manuel Pellegrini's side tasted defeat that season. Last season also culminated in a good run to the line, with Pellegrini's departure heralding an 11-game run-in that contained just two defeats after a 3-0 collapse at Liverpool in early March.
In fact, we have to travel back to Roberto Mancini's final acts as a City manager to witness the last time City limped over the line. Even then, three defeats from Feb. 24, a run which contained eight wins, can hardly be called a disaster. City's stars downed tools in the most public way possible, flopping in the FA Cup final against Wigan and also lost the final game of the season 3-2 at home to Norwich in a lame display, but the season still ended with the club comfortably in second place with 78 points behind champions Manchester United.
This season will not see such daring deeds, and the best City can now achieve is a four-game winning end to the season to at least secure automatic Champions League qualification. In these days of high hopes and even higher targets, that is a flop in anybody's language.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.