City lacking usual spark
Manchester City's weary players boarded a plane to France yesterday, the southern city of Marseille being the latest stop on their gruelling and seemingly interminable fixture schedule in a pandemic-disrupted season like no other.
There were no senior strikers on the flight, with Sergio Aguero injured again and joining Gabriel Jesus back in the treatment room.
Star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne will be on board, recently back from injury and fresh from protestations about the workload being forced on football players this season.
Whether Aymeric Laporte, City's defensive lynchpin, will play in the Champions League match at the Stade Velodrome today is in the balance after his run of fitness issues.
"I try to demand everything from my players," City manager Pep Guardiola said at the weekend, "but there is a limit for human beings."
Sympathy is usually in short supply when it comes to Man City and the debate over workload and fixture congestion.
"It's the richest club in the world," is a typical retort. And most would say it's a perfectly reasonable one, given City spent more than PS100 million on two centre backs in the offseason, one of whom is purely seen as back-up.
Yet, it is hard to escape the fact that City's performanceshave rarely looked flatter and more predictable under Guardiola than they have since the start of the season.
In short, being the busiest team in English football in recent years appears to be taking its toll.
A 1-1 draw at West Ham in the Premier League on Saturday has left City in 13th place and on eight points - their lowest tally after five games since 2014.
Only five teams have scored fewer goals in the Premier League than City's eight, so even an attack that season after season creates more chances than any other team is misfiring by its usual high standards.
Of course, it doesn't help when Guardiola is without a recognised striker -- Jesus got injured in the first game of the season, and Aguero has broken down three games into his return from four months out -- but there's more to it than that.
"We don't have enough preparation in our legs throughout the whole squad," the City manager said, referring to the fact that his players had an off season just two weeks long, owing to the late finish to last season because of its involvement in the last eight of the Champions League in August.
"Of course, it's too much," Guardiola added, while raising concerns about the "mental state" of some of the players. "It's not more difficult to understand than this."