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Can City or United really win the UCL?

Champions League
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 By Simon Curtis

Manchester City feeling wear and tear entering crucial stretch of season

ESPN FC's Craig Burley discusses Burnley's surprise draw against Manchester City.
ESPN FC's Craig Burley discusses Burnley's surprise draw against Manchester City.
ESPN FC's Craig Burley discusses Burnley's surprise draw against Manchester City.

On the very last day of 2017 Manchester City finished a tumultuous game at Selhurst Park with a single point. In the circumstances, it was a good point, as the home side had been awarded a penalty as the clock drifted into time added on. An unbeaten run stretching back to the FA Cup semifinal with Arsenal the previous April was rescued by Ederson's acrobatic penalty save from Luka Milivojevic.

Nevertheless some of the seeds for City's current situation were clearly sown on that icy day in South East London.

Firstly, an 18-match winning run which had included spectacular wins against Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Napoli and Arsenal, was ended. Watford had shipped six and Stoke seven against Pep Guardiola's men in the same period. City had appeared virtually unstoppable in the first half of the season, even conjuring a series of last-gasp winners that suggested when the chips were down, their winning mentality would see them through anyway.

Last-gasp winners had almost become the norm with Huddersfield, West Ham, Southampton and Feyenoord being dispatched cruelly late in the Premier League and Champions League, respectively. In the League Cup, the winning run had been stretched even closer to breaking point with penalty shootout wins against willing Wolves and Leicester sides.

Crystal Palace, however, marked a turning point in many more ways than simply heralding the end of that scintillating winning run.

It was the match where Gabriel Jesus was injured, rendering City's attack a one-man affair through January and February, as Sergio Aguero was asked to carry the can. Playmaker Kevin De Bruyne was also removed from the Selhurst Park pitch on a stretcher that afternoon after a horrendous lunge from Jason Puncheon stopped him breaking clear for a possible late winner.

For the grand artists of Manchester City, things were beginning to get physical.

In injuring himself in the act of committing the foul, Puncheon was perhaps delivered a small slice of just desserts, but De Bruyne -- seemingly poleaxed and with everyone expecting the worst -- was back on duty for the very next game, a routine home victory against Watord. The Puncheon tackle was just one of several horrendous fouls on City's main man this season that have failed to stop him.

Kevin De Bruyne has started 34 of the 39 games Manchester City have played this season.

The Belgian, cruising towards individual player accolades as well as collective prizes with his club was suddenly the league's most marked man. Dele Alli had also left stud marks down his shins in the home win against Tottenham, and the recent victory against West Brom saw a wild but unsuccessful attempt by James McClean to take him out at knee height while surging through midfield.

De Bruyne's assertion that he is tired will make sobering reading for City fans, with the pointy end of the season approaching. In a week's time, Champions League skirmishing will resume in Switzerland against Basel. City have a League Cup final date with Arsenal at Wembley at the end of this month and must travel to Wigan to attempt to maintain course for a possible second Wembley appearance in the FA Cup.

De Bruyne has good reason to be feeling his battered legs. Of the 39 games City have played this season, he has started 34 and appeared later in another two, leaving just three games that he has played no part in since August. The Belgian might have been undroppable for many months, but his legs clearly need a rest.

If Guardiola wants City's Champions League thrust to be as forceful as City's domestic drive has been, he must now begin to spare those bruised legs a little. If the Palace game has served another lesson, it is that unscrupulous players will use foul means or fair to stop City's best players. The jury might be out on whether some of these X-rated tackles were intentional or simply poorly timed against the league's best players, but the result is the same: an injury list that threatens to run into double figures.

Defensive lynchpins Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho are not far behind De Bruyne's games total. Having to face any of the big-hitters later on in the Champions League without this trio, plus the intermittently involved David Silva and the over-burdened Sergio Aguero would greatly impact City's effectiveness.

The manager will be painfully aware of this, as he waits patiently for Fabian Delph, Benjamin Mendy, John Stones, Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden and Leroy Sane to mend. A momentous season now rests on the careful managing of playing resources through a slightly less packed month of February (City played nine games in January).

In Danilo, Ilkay Gundogan, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Yaya Toure and Bernardo Silva, Guardiola has talent and experience waiting in the wings.

If City are to learn the lessons of Selhurst Park and complete a historic season for the club, the manager's team selections in the next six weeks will be absolutely critical.

Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.

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