The talk among many Manchester City supporters about a quadruple had reached a fever pitch following last Wednesday’s 5-1 victory over Spurs at White Hart Lane. Delusions of grandeur and historically unprecedented feats had begun to sweep City’s fandom with those (myself included) who wrote off the possibility of winning more than two trophies this season as “non-believers.”
It is amazing what one setback can do to the confidence and psyche of supporters who are often accustomed to seeing their side bottle it on the biggest occasions. Chelsea’s 1-0 victory at the Etihad on Monday had a debilitating effect on many of the more unrealistic Manchester City fans. From the talk of four trophies, discourse shifted to whether Manuel Pellegrini should be sacked if the Blues do not win the title, and whether a top 3 finish was realistic. As someone who never bought into the quadruple hype and have insisted for two months that Chelsea is the title favorite, the classic overreaction was comical and reminded me of the days when our supporters were largely bitter and fatalistic.
The club has now dropped more points at home than in the title winning season of 2011-12 and lost as many games as that season. City’s four remaining away matches against top seven opposition suddenly look daunting to most fans. But reality is that nothing has changed since last week. Jose Mourinho generally does not lose big matches and the idea that City was going to smash Chelsea was always unrealistic. This was fueled by a combination of masterful Mourinho mind-games and an indulgently irresponsible media.
But what the defeat has done is taken pressure off a Blues side that was under increasing stress to roll up bigger scorelines while playing mouthwatering attacking football. The demands that City entertain AND continue winning in all competitions despite fixture pileup and continued fitness issues were too much for a relatively unsuccessful club historically to handle. For all the talk that Manchester City has outspent everyone in football (except perhaps Chelsea) over the past six seasons, the club does not have the ethos of pedigree of Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern. Most of the players on the Blues side have very few trophy successes to their name and don’t have the experience in the squad of big club successes required to maintain form under such lofty and impractical expectation.
The naivety and self-delusion of some Blues supporters, many of whom are recent converts to the club due to contemporary success, can now be safely cast aside. It was this delusion that led to a runaway train of idealistic expectations about style combined with unsophisticated conclusions about how strong the team was.
Liberated from the ridiculous weight of these expectations, I believe the Blues will play with more freedom and less tension in the coming fixtures. No longer are some City supporters boasting about possibly winning the Champions League and completing a domestic treble. Instead realism has entered the picture. Try and defeat Sunderland, a side who has taken more points of City in the last three years in the Premier League than anyone, at Wembley and lift a single trophy. Play well in some critical matches away from the Etihad and stay in contention for the league title.
The burden of expectations began to weigh Manchester City down right after Christmas when the team had difficulty defeating Crystal Palace at home. It then intensified after a poor showing against Blackburn in the FA Cup when the Blues were fortunate to secure a replay. The League Cup provided a respite but controversy laden league wins over Newcastle and Spurs as well as a struggle at home against Watford in the FA Cup showed the club was tiring and beginning to buckle. The loss to Chelsea brought into the open what was apparent for weeks to objective observers — Pellegrini’s side was wobbling badly.
With the realization that Manchester City aren’t world beaters but simply a very good Premier League team with title hopes and life in four competitions, the new realism should serve to galvanize the club. The nervousness of recent performances could very well give way to the type of loose, free-flowing football we had come to expect from the Blues. For that, everyone will win.