What a difference a year makes: Man City prepare for tester at Leicester
It is almost a full year since Manchester City last set foot in Leicester, and some would say they have had good reason to stay away.
It is of course merely a quirk of the fixture computer, but City's previous visit to this part of the East Midlands was a disaster of discouraging proportions. Two down after five minutes and three down after 20, the game was lost before it had even started, with Jamie Vardy having a particularly good time roaming through City's scattered back line. The England striker eventually helped himself to a hat trick.
By the end, two late consolation goals from Aleksandar Kolarov and Nolito masked somewhat the disaster that had transpired for City. They had been totally overrun, out-thought and outmaneuvered.
A look at Pep Guardiola's side that cold, wintry afternoon reveals a starting 11 heavily endowed with players who have since moved on, including in one case, Kelechi Iheanacho, to Leicester themselves. Kolarov, Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernando, Nolito and Jesus Navas all played in a City side that looked totally unfit for purpose.
It was perhaps the lowest point of Guardiola's scratch-it-and-see first season in England, when his experimentations often came unstuck, none more vividly than on this occasion, with a patched-up side that bears little resemblance at all to what he constructed for this season. In fact, Guardiola will not be the only one pinching himself to believe it was only 12 months ago.
With whispering voices starting to mention the nickname "Fraudiola" and a burgeoning press opening up attack on City's manager, the honeymoon appeared well and truly over. Guardiola, stubborn as ever, insisted that he "did not coach tackling," as questions were asked about the paper-thin resistance put up by his side at the King Power Stadium.
He has stuck to his guns, however, and -- predictably enough for those who know him -- come out of the crisis smelling of roses.
Guardiola has proved his pedigree time and again since then and rubber-stamped it with the scintillating start that his side has made to 2017-18. Ten wins and a single draw from the first 11 fixtures have set City up as the side to beat this season. Fifteen straight victories in all competitions since the dramatic last-minute winner by Sterling at Bournemouth reveals the extent to which he has turned things around and got the club playing exactly how he wants.
Perhaps the one player who has matched his manager's progress from Leicester last time to Leicester this time is centre-back John Stones. The sight of the gangly defender trying to play his way out of trouble at the King Power as Leicester's hungry forwards devoured the spaces around him is one that still haunts City fans. A year later, Stones is unrecognisable. Still sticking to his manager's principles of playing the ball out with style and accuracy, Stones is fast developing into the kind of polished, technically-able defender that England have not had for years.
Calm and collected in possession and unshakable bringing the ball out of defence to feed the midfield machinery in front of him, Stones has come of age after a sticky start to his £47.5 million City career. He now looks assured of a long stay at the top for both club and country, where he has transported his effortless defending seamlessly, as witnessed in the friendlies with Brazil and Germany.
So, as the Premier League gears up to restart, City's challenge in the Midlands on Saturday is clear: to keep the runs going. They need five more wins to match Arsenal's 14-win sequence from 2002 and stand unbeaten in 23 so far, since last season's FA Cup semifinal defeat to Arsenal -- and to resume where they left off before the international break.
The biggest challenge of all, however, is to prove that last season's disaster can never happen again. Leicester will again flood forward, using the pace of Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, and wasting little time to get the ball into the dangerous areas of the pitch. Guardiola's liking for having the ball on the ground will be tested by the home side's penchant for a slightly more direct approach. If City -- as they have done so often this season-- can hold onto the lion's share of possession and deprive the home side of the chance to undermine them with their own plans, the visitors can prevail.
A win against Leicester would banish last season's ghosts and help confirm that Guardiola's City vintage is ready to carry on into the winter months where they took off in the autumn. There is a long, hard road ahead, with plenty of energetic challenges waiting to try and trip up Guardiola's thoroughbreds. But perhaps none of them will be as robust an examination as Leicester are likely to produce this weekend.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.