Manchester City start the 2018/19 season in strong position to be first side in a decade to win back-to-back Premier League crowns
Guardiola in line to follow in footsteps of Ferguson, Mourinho and Paisley as Man City target title defence
Go back nine years, to Cristiano Ronaldo’s last game as a Manchester United player, and there was the sense a baton was passed.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s team had been the best in Europe. The 2009 Uefa Champions League final offered irrefutable proof that tag now belonged to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
Change was in the air. United had won three consecutive Premier Leagues, Ferguson’s second hat-trick of his long reign in charge at Old Trafford.
Shorn of their aura of invincibility and both Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, who joined Manchester City, they ceded their domestic crown to Chelsea the following season. And since then, every reigning champion has been deposed, sometimes ignominiously. Until now?
Because City seem equipped to become the first team to define an era in the division since Ferguson’s United. Because while there is no doubt City’s long-time goal is to win the Champions League, Guardiola has stated unequivocally that his priority this season is the Premier League.
Because no side has ever dominated the division quite like City last season.
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Both Guardiola’s grounded attitude and Vincent Kompany’s statement that it was “not a dynasty, just one title” underline City’s hunger.
There is a sense that complacency represented an issue in their previous two title defences, that having scaled one peak, not everyone was ready to climb another. It feels less of a problem now.
There is a realism that last season’s spate of statistical distinctions – 32 wins, 100 points, 106 goals – represented an outlier. “It is impossible to break any more records,” said Guardiola last month.
Yet the most significant may have been the 19-point gap to anyone else. If injuries bite, if the Champions League proves a distraction, if they endure a slump, City still have some margin for error.
The Community Shield suggested there is a gulf in class to Chelsea and, indirectly, some of the chasing pack.
City have not been lavish spenders so far, with Riyad Mahrez the only arrival. Yet the possibility a winger who recorded 12 goals and 10 assists last season may not be a first-choice shows City’s strength in depth.
While Aymeric Laporte joined in January, the Frenchman is in effect a summer signing who was fast-tracked; they would have won the title without him.
In their different ways, each of Gabriel Jesus, Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy and Phil Foden offers to contribute more than last year.
So if others deliver less – if, say, Raheem Sterling does not score 23 goals again – someone else may be able to compensate.
Excellence is to be expected. The concern is that the Premier League is an obstacle course. City made negotiating it look easy last season, but past champions can testify it is not.
The likelihood is that City will benefit from fewer dramatic late winners this time around. It is hard to imagine they will only drop two points from their first 20 games, as they did last season.
But nor do they look a team who will veer from magnificence to mediocrity in the way some of their predecessors have.
City have finished 13 and eight points adrift respectively as champions. Much as they were criticised then, they compare favourably to Chelsea’s plummets to 10th and fifth or Leicester’s to the lower half, or United’s to seventh under David Moyes.
But they are part of a wider trend. Only Ferguson’s United and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have retained the Premier League title. The last manager before them to win the English league in successive seasons was Bob Paisley, and January marks the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Paisley was a triple European Cup winner. One way or another, Guardiola may emulate him this season.