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Man City will face a challenge they’ve never had before in January

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For Manchester City, this next month or so is normally the heart of the season, the time when they find top gear and turn their rivals into dust. But this season, 16 of their players are in Qatar and just when they are usually making mincemeat of all comers, the campaign is on hold.

It’s a new challenge for every team but it hasn’t escaped the notice of Pep Guardiola and his players that the World Cup is taking place in what is often a crucial phase of the season for them.

To try and mitigate the six-week break, Guardiola and his squad spoke about starting quickly this season, of getting out of the blocks quicker, but it’s not been hugely successful.

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The defeat to Brentford on the final weekend before the World Cup has changed perceptions of how we see their start to the season, and the flying start that Arsenal have made is always a key part of the season why City are five points adrift.

But dropping points in four of the first 14 games has been far from ideal. The draw at Aston Villa and defeat to Brentford have been particularly hard to take and the loss at Anfield was also a missed opportunity, given Liverpool’s form at the time.

City’s occasional slow starts have usually been offset by a strong run around this time of year. Last season they won nine of 10 games played during the weeks of the World Cup, with the defeat a dead-rubber Champions League game. That was in a run of 15 wins out of 16 between November and mid-January, a stretch that proved crucial.

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The year before that they began a 21-game winning run on December 19, building momentum to that decisive run, and in 2019/20 they strung together 10 wins out of 11 from December 11. That was in a season that wasn’t successful for them.

So without the comfort blanket of these weeks, City have to find a new way to turn on the afterburners this season.

What they can’t afford to do is start slowly again once the World Cup has finished. For Guardiola, having 16 of his players away at the tournament is far from ideal. It represents a real risk that they might take time to find their stride, with a Carabao Cup game against Liverpool on December 22 and then a Premier League fixture at Leeds on December 28.

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With Arsenal in such form, City can’t afford to take their time to build momentum again. A winning run in February or March might be too little too late if it comes after another spell of dropped points.

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