Well at least this was the trope until their untrammeled quest for glory began to turn into a grind during the last few weeks.
Away from the startlingly improved Raheem Sterling, inch-perfect Kevin De Bruyne and increasingly decisive David Silva, centre-back Nicolas Otamendi is emerging as a vital component to the Blues’ winning machine.
This will be the case once again at Old Trafford on Sunday, a ground full of fond memories for him after an exceptional display against Sweden warrior Zlatan Ibrahimovic in last September’s victorious derby for the men in sky blue.
The Argentina international’s grit has helped knit the side together during the ongoing slog of three vital wins by one-goal margins. Away from the obvious leveller to spark December 3’s eventual 2-1 win against West Ham United, he has managed a revolving door of partners to keep City well in control of the title hunt.
This has all been done while performing in the shadows, an unsung hero playing chorus for partner John Stones or the plethora of gifted attackers in front of him.
But from the moment the England man went down with a hamstring injury at Leicester last month, an area of weakness opened up for the runaway leaders.
Neither the ailing Vincent Kompany or erratic Eliaquim Mangala are currently up to the job of manning the barricades for title pretenders.
— Nicolas Otamendi (@Notamendi30) December 3, 2017
A succession of injuries and increasing age have robbed the former of his ability to attack the ball like few other centre-backs in the history of the Premier League. Mangala could never boast such talent, his recruitment at the unverified cost of £42 million (Dh206.5m) by Football Leaks a stain on director of football Txiki Begiristain’s judgement.
Such erratic players need a guiding hand. This is where the rehabilitated Otamendi has stood up.
Under Manuel Pellegrini, after a £28.5m (Dh140.1m) move from Valencia in August 2015, and during Guardiola’s mixed debut campaign in 2016/17, similar disparaging accusations could have been directed at the 29-year-old.
A transformation has occurred during the summer.
Only 10 goals have been conceded in his 14 Premier League appearance’s this term, at an average of 0.7 per game. Last season, 28 were let in during 30 fixtures at an average of 1.1 per match.
In total, City have let just 10 goals in during their 15 matches. At the same stage in 2016/17, this figure was nearly double that at 19.
Otamendi is making less tackles per game, dropping from 2.3 to 1.9. But a rapid improvement has been witnessed in a key facet of any centre-back’s output under Guardiola.
From averaging 64.9 passes per game at 88.2 per cent accuracy, he’s now moved up to 89.7 passes per game at 91.2 per cent accuracy. This compares favourably to Stones, a figure hailed as an aesthete in defence, who has 70.4 average passes per game at 96.2 per cent accuracy.
Otamendi also already has three goals in his 14 top-flight run-outs. Only one was recorded in the previous campaign.
He has shown in recent weeks he can both fulfil the artisan element of Guardiola’s requirements, while also being able to dig in and defend doggedly to secure invaluable three-point hauls.
Do this again in the other half of Manchester and a chorus of plaudits should hail the unsung hero.
Ernesto Valverde’s side, who signed off the Champions League group stages with a 2-0 triumph over Sporting Lisbon at the Nou Camp on Tuesday, have won 11 and drawn three of their 14 league games so far this term.
But with Real Madrid convincing 5-0 winners over Sevilla on Saturday, the Blaugrana need a statement win of their own.
Here, we examine three key questions ahead of Sunday’s clash.
MASCHERANO BACK… FOR A WHILE?
A two-month lay-off for key Barcelona central defender Samuel Umtiti has made Javier Mascherano’s return from injury more urgent than previously, and the experienced Argentine could even be rushed back alongside Gerard Pique for the game despite limited training.
However, Mascherano’s future at the club is decidedly uncertain, with the 33 year-old apparently set upon completing a lucrative move to the Chinese Super League in January – a deal that Barca’s board were apparently happy to sanction until Umtiti got injured.
The debate over the long-serving stalwart’s future has been a major distraction in the build-up to the trip to Villarreal, with manager Ernesto Valverde doing his best to dodge the issue during his pre-match press conference on Saturday evening.
In any case, Valverde may well opt to stick with Belgian international Thomas Vermaelen, who has done pretty well since being called into the team for the first time in nearly two years as a result of Umtiti’s injury.
And if Mascherano goes in January, Vermaelen could be getting a lot more games.
ARE BARCA LOSING THEIR WAY?
Two consecutive draws in La Liga have narrowed Barca’s previously commanding lead at the top, with Real Madrid now lurking ominously five points behind first place ahead of Sunday’s tough game at Villarreal.
In truth, though, Barca’s performances in their 1-1 draw at Valencia and 2-2 home tie with Celta Vigo deserved better reward – in direct contrast, you could say, to some of the games they won earlier in the season without playing particularly well.
It could be argued that the Blaugrana’s luck has run out and they have now started to lose the points they were fortunate to collect a few weeks ago, and the period before Christmas will certainly be crucial as Barca attempt to overcome this weekend’s banana skin ahead of the Clasico date at the Bernabeu in a fortnight.
More dropped points at Villarreal, whether deservedly or not, would strengthen the suspicion that Barca are entering into freefall, and the game at El Madrigal is one of those occasions where they just need to win irrespective of how it happens. Over to you, Lionel Messi…
VILLARREAL DOWN BUT NOT OUT?
Villarreal have perhaps been the most inconsistent team in La Liga so far this season, with their erratic tendencies highlighted in their most recent home league game against Sevilla which saw them race into a 2-0 lead before collapsing to lose 3-2.
The Yellow Submarine have won just one of their last five league games, and suffered a shock – albeit harmless – defeat to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League on Thursday night after already clinching progression to the knockout stage.
They are missing key striker Carlos Bacca for the visit of Barca, while classy young midfielder Pablo Fornals is also absent after fainting during training on Saturday.
So a lot of things appear to be pointing against Villarreal for their meeting with the leaders.
But they are still sixth in the table, and with dangerous attacking talent including pacy frontman Cedric Bakambu, wily winger Samu Castillejo and playmaker Manu Trigueros, their chances of causing an upset certainly can’t be discounted.
Sevilla had started the afternoon on the same number of points as Madrid in joint fourth, but the sides looked worlds apart as Real scored all five goals before half-time to close to within five points of Barca at the top of the table.
Here, we look at three things learned from the thrashing.
ASENSIO IN THE FRAME FOR EL CLASICO?
What is Real Madrid’s best starting eleven? For much of 2017 the answer to that question has appeared to be self-evident, with the midfield trio of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos backing up Isco, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, assuming Gareth Bale has to be discounted with his endless injury problems.
Now, though, Zinedine Zidane may have to rethink that formula because Marco Asensio’s performance in the cakewalk against Sevilla on Saturday suggested he is simply too good to continue to be left on the bench.
Playing on the left wing, the young Spanish international was the outstanding creative force on the field, exuding class as he tormented the visiting defence with his smooth dribbling, incisive passing and penetrating movement.
Notably, he drifted inside to deliver a perfect assist for Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener – exactly the kind of thing Karim Benzema should be doing but palpably isn’t.
Asensio’s versatility would allow him to take Benzema’s place alongside Ronaldo in attack, and on current form that is exactly what Zidane should do for the crucial Clasico clash with Barcelona in a fortnight.
MADRID’S FUTURE IN SAFE HANDS
Madrid’s results and performances haven’t always been great this season, but on this evidence the club’s crop of youngsters are continuing to make decent progress and look like good bets to play a much bigger role in the future.
In addition to the outstanding Asensio, who will surely become an established started sooner rather than later, there were good displays from defensive duo Jesus Vallejo and Achraf Hakimi, who were given rare starts due to the absence of Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal and Raphael Varane.
They will return to the bench when the established starters return, but Moroccan international Achraf in particular looks mature beyond his years and, if he stays around for long enough, could be an excellent long-term replacement for Carvajal at right-back.
Marcos Llorente also did well from the bench in the centre of midfield, and with seven members of the squad aged 22 or below, there’s the core of a solid team at the Bernabeu for many years to come.
RONALDO BACK TO HIS BEST
Remember those days when Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t score and some people – fools, the lot of them – were suggesting that he had entered into a permanent decline?
That brief period, even though it was just a couple of weeks away, seems a very long time ago now. Ronaldo has emerged from his early-season ‘slump’ to score six goals in his last five games, including a first-half brace in Saturday’s rout of Sevilla. Not bad for a decline.
In truth, he was slightly fortunate with the second goal from the penalty spot – firstly that he was given the opportunity at all for a harsh handball decision on Jesus Navas, and secondly that visiting keeper Sergio Rico didn’t save a pretty ordinary penalty that was stroked straight at him.
But what goes around comes around, and Ronaldo is perhaps now benefitting from the good fortune in front of goal that he was denied earlier this season, when it seemed the footballing gods were determined to prevent him from netting.
Whatever the reason, Ronaldo is back…and just in time for El Clasico, as well.