All three had played 16 games. They have won each of their five games since, stretching a winning sequence in the Premier League to 11 as they came from a goal down to claim victory at much-improved Arsenal. Now they are 10 points clear at the top.
Pep Guardiola slipped happily out of London under cover of a technical hitch. At last, for him and Manchester City there was a break in the schedule and he was not about to hang around so Arsenal could fix their Zoom enabling him to answer more questions.
Guardiola had done his post-match television duties and his comments came washed with relief, satisfaction and pride at his team’s fightback and Rodri’s stoppage-time winner.
‘Now we have time to rest,’ said the City boss. ‘We had no energy… incredibly tired. They were better.’
Since the international break in November, City have played a dozen games in 41 days and won all but one. The only slip was a defeat in a Champions League dead rubber at RB Leipzig.
It has been another midwinter kick for home by Guardiola, cutting through the thickest part of the fixture forest to break clear of City’s pursuers.
It may prove the most crucial 21 days of the season. Three weeks ago, on Monday December 13, City were top with 38 points one more than Liverpool, two more than Chelsea.
‘We showed our champion mentality,’ said Rodri. ‘We never give up.’
There are echoes of last season when Guardiola’s team won 15 matches in a row, starting in December and ending in March. This relentlessness intensifies pressure on rivals. Liverpool and Chelsea have been unable to keep up, dropping points with Carabao Cup ties to squeeze in, Covid outbreaks and injuries.
City have not been immune to the Omicron variant. Rodri, hero of the Emirates, was just back from a bout of the virus. As was Kyle Walker, with Oleksandr Zinchenko and Phil Foden missing after positive tests.
By their own standards, City have been stretched during this period. They sold Ferran Torres, who had spent most of the season injured, and dropped Foden and Jack Grealish for a breach of discipline. Benjamin Mendy is in prison.
Four teenagers were on the bench at Arsenal. Joao Cancelo played after being beaten up in a robbery. Nathan Ake stepped in and made a vital clearance off the line. ‘The last week especially has been very tough, a lot of travelling as well,’ said Ake.
‘You can see that the energy was not the same. I think we have deserved a few days’ rest and we go into the FA Cup before a big game against Chelsea.’
Sympathy will be in short supply because they are so wealthy, but you have to sit back and admire the way City have armed to compete on all fronts through the rigours of an English season and what Guardiola coaxes from them.
As Riyad Mahrez departs for the Africa Cup of Nations with Algeria, they can bring back Grealish, Britain’s most expensive footballer, signed for £100million.
The transfer window is open for business and they are through the worst of the midwinter congestion with points on the board not games in hand and just six Premier League games before the end of February. Guardiola’s fringe players can take the strain in the FA Cup at Swindon on Friday as first-team regulars put their feet up and rest before Chelsea visit the Etihad on Saturday week.
Little wonder the City boss was so satisfied. His team are well set to continue what has been a decade of domination in the Premier League. They have won five of the last 10 titles and another this season would make it four of the last five.
‘We will always challenge for the title,’ said Rodri. ‘We know how tough it is to win the Premier League and we are not going to drop it. We don’t look at the others much and winning 11 games in a row, it shows that we are focused on ourselves.’
Chelsea, meanwhile, go from yesterday’s draw with Liverpool into what promises to be a gruelling two-legged Carabao Cup semi-final against London rivals Tottenham. In the other tie, Liverpool take on Arsenal, who will be encouraged by their performance in defeat against City.
The Gunners led through Bukayo Saka and will reflect on a suicidal five minutes in the second half during which they conceded the penalty scored by Mahrez, missed an open goal through Gabriel Martinelli and saw Gabriel sent off after two silly yellow cards. The first was for dissent towards referee Stuart Attwell and the second for a body-check on Gabriel Jesus. ‘Hard to accept it,’ tweeted the Arsenal centre back.
Gabriel will miss the first leg of the Liverpool tie, at the Emirates on Thursday, and will have to wait to see if the FA take further action over the sarcastic applause directed at fourth official Kevin Friend after his red card.
Wilfried Zaha received an improper conduct charge and an additional game’s ban when he did something similar in 2019.