Pep's quadruple: can Manchester City be stopped by anyone?
Pep Guardiola's defending Premier League champions could add three more trophies to the EFL Cup. But what are their chances of doing so?
Fifteen games. Sixty-five days. Three competitions.
Pep Guardiola understandably does not want to entertain quadruple talk as the 2018-19 season enters its final stretch.
Unfortunately for the Manchester City manager, the relentless form of his team and a mapped-out route of what the EFL Cup winners require for glory in the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League means an unprecedented feat feels improbably tangible.
But how likely is it that City will pull off the footballing equivalent of a gruelling high-wire act while being battered by a pair of chopping crosswinds? Here, we examine their chances.
Can they do it?
Quite simply, yes. City approach their potential clean sweep with a deeply stocked, high-quality squad. Within that there is a cluster of key players in supreme form.
Sergio Aguero is an elite striker enjoying the form of his career, while now effortlessly in tune with demands by Guardiola that once seemed beyond him. Raheem Sterling's stock as a bona fide matchwinner as impressive on the field as off it continues to rise.
Bernardo Silva is another man in player-of-the-season form – tireless and exquisitely skilled, to the extent that Kevin De Bruyne has barely been missed during an injury-ruined campaign. The Belgium midfielder and left-back Benjamin Mendy should be back to fuel the final charge.
On the field, he has a side grooved to his specifications. Riyad Mahrez was City's only major pre-season signing and is playing a bit-part role. Guardiola's first-choice players know their jobs inside out and he is regularly affecting games with well-judged substitutions.
All looks rosy from this perspective, but one wobble on the high wire and a damaging tumble is likely to follow.
If City fail to complete England's domestic cup double, it will represent a major shock. The rest of the Premier League big six fell by the wayside as Guardiola's men gorged on Rotherham United, Burnley and Newport County before a quarter-final scare against Swansea City.
In Brighton and Hove Albion, they face the weakest of the remaining contenders a day before Wolves and Watford play out an intriguing Wembley semi-final.
Wolves represent a very credible threat, having knocked out Liverpool and Manchester United. They also boast Premier League victories over Tottenham and Chelsea this term – displays that were preceded by a stirring 1-1 draw in August against the defending champions.
City's title defence looks set to go to the wire against a similarly excellent Liverpool side.
Jürgen Klopp's men lead the way by two points for now and plenty could change before City get around to their game in hand – the small matter of a Manchester derby at Old Trafford on April 24 might be absolutely pivotal.
City's pedigree as league winners from last season gives them the edge in the eyes of many observers, but this is a charge rather than a canter.
From Liverpool's Sunday showdown against Tottenham, their run-in looks kinder. Four of their remaining seven games take place at Anfield. City are away from the Etihad Stadium in five out of eight, including a trip to Brighton on the final day.
Should it go to the final weekend, Liverpool appear to have the trickiest assignment versus Wolves. Nuno Espirito Santo's top-six specialists could end up playing a very significant role as domestic kingmakers.
If City are able to negotiate a quarter-final meeting with Spurs, which falls either side of a trip to face a Crystal Palace side that triumphed at the Etihad in December, Juventus or Ajax will await in a semi-final that concludes in the week of the Premier League finale.
The first leg takes place at Tottenham's new stadium and, although Guardiola has generally had the better of Mauricio Pochettino since arriving in England, a fervent home crowd roaring on a fired-up team with nothing to lose will give City an uncomfortable parallel to their collapse against Liverpool at the same stage last year.
Lionel Messi's Barcelona lurk in the other side of the draw, where Liverpool face Porto as heavy favourites. The Reds retaining commitments at home and abroad through to the Champions League semis could work in City's favour.
The verdict: will they do it?
Despite putting themselves in a fantastic position, history suggests City will stumble just enough at some stage to leave the quadruple out of reach.
Chelsea reached the 2006-07 Champions League semi-final with the League Cup secured but lost to Liverpool on penalties. An FA Cup final victory over Manchester United partially atoned for being unable to catch Alex Ferguson's team in the league.
Ferguson's last great side were at the peak of their powers in 2008-09, only for a shoot-out defeat to Everton in the FA Cup semi-final to end quadruple dreams. Guardiola's brilliant Barcelona won the Champions League showpiece, leaving United with the Premier League and League Cup to parade.
As City's Swansea scare and mid-season losses to Palace, Leicester City and Newcastle United show, slip-ups can come any time and are more likely within a relentless schedule. If Guardiola's men reach the Champions League last four they will play every weekend and midweek from Saturday's trip to Fulham until the last day of the Premier League season.
In the battle for England's top flight, Liverpool's form is an obvious problem. When Guardiola won a 2008-09 treble with Barca, a 6-2 thrashing of Real Madrid was their only win in the final six LaLiga matches as they eased up and focused upon Europe.
In 1999, Manchester United's treble winners drew four of their final eight Premier League games. Ferguson's most celebrated side won the title with 79 points. Liverpool already have 76 and it must be assumed City have to put pedal to the metal from here until the finish line.
The trio of games against Tottenham feels like the moment things will reach breaking point. Spurs visit the Etihad Stadium in the Premier League immediately after the Champions League quarter-final, the last of three encounters in 12 days. Three wins out of three in such quick succession against a fellow elite side feels like a huge ask.
When Guardiola faced off against Jose Mourinho's Madrid four times in 18 days in 2011, Barcelona won the overall war but the battles were split – two draws and Madridista glory in the Copa del Rey.
The Spurs trilogy feeds directly into the Manchester derby. Expect the strain to tell decisively in either the Premier League or Champions League at this stage.
"Ask me at the end of April," Guardiola replied when the Q-word was uttered recently. If his team can ensure the question is still there to be asked at that stage, all bets will be off.
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