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Etihad bout will determine title race

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Patrick Barclay

Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.

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LONDON

CLASSIC PARADOX

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One day they may dominate the soccer world, the ownership group from Abu Dhabi -- they have already founded a club in New York and recently took over one in Melbourne, Australia. But for now the priority is to establish dominance in England and Manchester City can take a significant step in that direction by beating Chelsea (live, Monday, 3 p.m. ET).

City always win at home in the Premier League. Manuel Pellegrini’s men were outclassed by European champions Bayern Munich in early October during their UEFA Champions League group stage, and must prove against Barcelona over the next few weeks that their rampant domestic form can continue on the European stage. But excitement is growing. England senses something special. And, if the "Special One" can’t stop City, who can?

Jose Mourinho is, in fact, one of the few coaches to have organized a victory over City this season. It was secured late, by Fernando Torres, and it came at Stamford Bridge during a dodgy spell by England goalkeeper Joe Hart that also helped Bayern to become the only visitors to win at the Etihad. But Hart appears to be over his difficulties and City are now going from strength to strength.

They even exceeded their four-goals-a-game home average on the road last week, triumphing 5-1 over a Tottenham whose fans had been encouraged by five League wins under new coach Tim Sherwood. Afterwards Sherwood, whose candor does him credit, hailed "the champions, without question," describing City as "the best team in the League by a country mile."

Meanwhile, a dozen London miles to the south, Chelsea were being denied two points by West Ham and Mourinho liked that about as much as you’d expect, accusing rival Sam Allardyce of "football from the 19th century…10 defenders in the box." If this was reported in Munich, his old Spanish adversary Josep Guardiola would surely have joined in the laughter, for Mourinho was never one to worry about frustrating the opposition.

POLL

  • Which club will win the Premier League title?
    • Arsenal
    • Liverpool
    • Chelsea
    • Manchester City
    • Manchester United
    • Other

There was certainly no lack of hilarity among the supporters of Manchester United and Arsenal, each of which have been held to scoreless ties on their own grounds this season by Chelsea teams designed by Mourinho for the very purpose. But can he afford to try that at the Etihad?

First of all, there is the danger that it will not work. Pellegrini has at his command such an array of attacking talent that, after Newcastle and Manchester United were beaten by four goals at the Etihad early in the season, the scoring rate actually increased, Spurs and Arsenal being hit for six and Norwich City seven.

True, the game at White Hart Lane on Wednesday cost City the services of Sergio Aguero for four weeks, but even the loss of one of the League’s outstanding forwards to hamstring injury need not trouble Pellegrini unduly, for he was able to keep Alvaro Negredo on the bench, fit and fresh for Chelsea, and instead send on a fit-again Stevan Jovetic, who proceeded to score the fourth goal.

The wiles of David Silva, now back to his best, can confound any defense and, even if Negredo and Edin Dzeko are unable to find the net, the surges from deep of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho pose another threat. With Sheikh Mansour’s money, City truly have built a formidable team, one whose continuing rise is no less welcome among its community’s blue hordes for the fall -- however temporary -- of neighbors United.

But Wednesday’s results give Mourinho another issue to ponder. They opened up a gap of three points between leaders City and Chelsea -- Arsenal, lest it be forgotten, can at least temporarily regain the leadership by beating Crystal Palace at the Emirates (live, Sunday, 11 a.m. ET) -- and he has to decide if even the achievement of a tie in Manchester would be enough to keep his team in hot pursuit of the title.

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The prize for Pellegrini, who got the worse of his battles with Mourinho when in Spain, is a six-point advantage over the man considered his main rival (many observers have a theory that Arsenal will fade as the season goes on, and it remains to be proved) with 14 games to go. City’s goal difference is naturally, and massively, superior, so make that seven points if you like. Mathematically, the deficit could be made up. Realistically, the challenge from South West London would fade.

Even any solace Mourinho might be able to take from City’s smallest home win of the season -- they beat Palace only 1-0 just after Christmas, as the games came thick and fast -- is reduced by an appreciation that Pellegrini’s side have tended to provide the Etihad with peak performances on occasions when the stakes seem high, such as against United and Arsenal.

But Mourinho, of course, is no ordinary coach. Although, for all his academic background, he may lack something as a historian -- 19th century football was never ultra-defensive, and that of the Victorian period, influenced by the Scottish style, was certainly constructive -- he does know how to disrupt the opposition. Guardiola would testify to that. Now let’s see what Pellegrini can do.

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