Manchester City’s Spanish manager Pep Guardiola gestures on the touchline/ AFP PHOTO / Paul ELLIS /
The one thing people would not have expected of Manchester City under Pep Guardiola, who takes his side to Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Saturday, is inconsistency.
Yet they veered between inspired and insipid in the lead-up to the international break, following up a superb 3-1 Champions League victory over Barcelona by failing to beat Middlesbrough four days later.
The 1-1 draw with Boro saw City slip to third in the table, after just one win in five matches, and they will be expected to do better against a desperately out-of-form Palace team.
“They are very strong and have very good wingers, so they will believe they can win this game,” said City striker Kelechi Iheanacho of the threat posed by Palace.
“We have to be careful, respect them and expect this to be a very difficult match.
“Crystal Palace will always be a special game for me because I scored my first goal against them and if I play on Saturday, I hope to score another against them.”
Guardiola’s team have developed a worrying habit of failing to make dominance count in games and of being unable to keep clean sheets, managing just two in 11 Premier League matches this season.
Beating Barcelona shows what they are capable of, but they are struggling to produce that form often enough.
The good news for Guardiola is that his international players have returned from World Cup qualifying duty in good health.
There was a concern over goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, forced off with a minor knock while playing for Chile against Colombia, but he recovered for Tuesday’s 3-1 win over Uruguay, saving a penalty from Luis Suarez.
Striker Sergio Aguero perhaps has a point to prove, having been dropped to the bench for Argentina’s two qualifiers against Brazil and Colombia.
– Zaha calls for unity –
He has moved into sixth place on City’s all-time list of goalscorers this season, scoring his 150th for the club against Boro, but his form has wavered in recent weeks.
Aguero’s international team-mate Pablo Zabaleta will also be available, but faces competition for the right-back slot from Bacary Sagna, who has recovered from a muscle problem.
Midfielder Fernandinho has returned to Manchester in good spirits after captaining Brazil for the first time as they closed on a place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia with wins over Argentina and Peru.
The international break has given Palace manager Alan Pardew and his players plenty of time to mull over the last-minute defeat at Burnley that left them just one point above the relegation places.
Palace looked to have turned a corner in September, winning three games in a row as part of a five-match unbeaten run, only for a run of four straight defeats to drag them back towards the mire.
Palace have registered just five victories in their last 32 league games.
While Pardew insists there is no correlation between last season’s 14-game winless streak from December to April and his team’s current woes, he will be well aware of the dangers of maintaining such a negative trend.
Pardew’s main concerns are focused on a defence that has conceded 10 goals in the last three games –- a statistic that hardly encourages optimism ahead of the visit of City.
But Wilfried Zaha is confident Palace can turn things around.
“I have been in worse situations before, like last season when we did not win in ages, but we have to stick together,” said the former Manchester United winger.
“I know it does not look the best right now, but I am sure we will get out of it.”