The sight of the Manchester City players after their 2-1 Boxing Day win over Liverpool spoke volumes.
United in celebration, they knew how vital the victory was, dropping the leaders down to fourth place and moving up to second themselves.
This was as tough as it had been at the Etihad in a Premier League encounter this season. Nine wins out of nine, with 20 goals in games against Manchester United, Arsenal, Spurs and Newcastle, are impressive numbers.
But most impressive was the way Manuel Pellegrini’s men dug deep to come back from a goal down and overcome an enterprising Liverpool side that looked every inch title contenders themselves.
It is that indefatigable spirit, that iron will to win, which defines champions, and why they are backed to be crowned kings for the second time in three seasons.
While Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and neighbours United will still have a say in how it all unfolds come May, Reds boss Brendan Rodgers was absolutely right when he claimed the title is City’s to lose.
There is a confidence and conviction that wasn’t quite there in the 2012 campaign. Back then, there were more nerves and tactics that often negated the opposition rather than provide a platform for their own talent to flourish.
Now there is a strut and swagger to complement an attacking style that is breathtaking to watch. Questions were rightly asked following a 1-0 loss at Sunderland in November about the mindset of the players and the new manager’s methods.
But nine successive wins and a draw at Southampton have provided the perfect response. Like the great English sides of old, be it Liverpool in their pomp, the Arsenal record-breakers or Sir Alex Ferguson’s United, there is an air of invincibility about City.
The Etihad has become a fortress and only Chelsea and Southampton are likely to threaten their historic bid to claim 19 league wins out of 19.
But, crucially, Pellegrini has also now got them firing on their travels too, with that fine win in Munich over Bayern a factor. It has taken a little time, but the ‘Engineer’ has built a powerful machine.
With the January addition of perhaps a left-back, another dominant central midfielder and striker – to ease the burden on Yaya Toure and allow time for Sergio Aguero and Stevan Jovetic’s injury troubles to heal – there will be few who can stop City.
With the season halfway through Andy Gray and Richard Keys who front Al Jazeera’s English Premier League television coverage discuss the top of the table and whether they are sticking to their pre-campaign title predictions:
Andy Gray: At this stage of the season the top three is as I thought it would be. The surprises are Liverpool and Newcastle and the disappointments have been Manchester United and Tottenham.
Arsenal may be top of the table but they are only six points ahead of Newcastle in sixth place. This time last year after 18 games the team at the top was sitting there with 45 points which is six more than they’ve got now.
The thing I like about Arsenal is that, so far, they have been as good away from home as they are at the Emirates. It’s not easy get that balance but I still question whether the mentality is there to go the distance.
When you haven’t won a title for as long as they haven’t it brings extra pressure and I wonder if they are going to be able to stand the pace.
I don’t have that worry about Manchester City. A lot of their players were in the championship winning side a couple of years ago so they know how to get the job done and I don’t have that worry about Chelsea.
I still don’t know if United have got enough to put themselves back in it and there is a big question mark over Liverpool, Everton and Newcastle.
I said City would win the title at the beginning of the season and I’ve seen nothing to change my mind. If they can get their away form sorted they could run away with it and even if they continue to struggle a bit on the road they will still win it, but not by much of a margin.
I hope for the league’s sake that when we go into May we have a situation where eight teams could justifiably argue that they are genuine contenders for the crown.
Two of those sides, Chelsea and Liverpool, play each other this weekend and it should be a belter. I see it developing a little bit like the Man City v Liverpool game where Brendan Rodgers’ boys were unlucky not to come away with at least a point.
The slight difference is that Chelsea have a steely resilience about them with the likes of Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Gary Cahill, Ramires and John Obi Mikel making them extremely hard to beat and although they might be struggling for goals they have enough to nick games by one goal.
It might not be as open as the game at the Etihad but it will be as close and I think the result will be the same. 2-1 home win.
Richard Keys: I agree entirely with Andy on Liverpool and particularly Newcastle, who I admit I thought would really struggle so fair play to them. As for the title, City look the most powerful at the moment but let’s wait and see.
That lucky win against Liverpool was one of their toughest tests so far this season and I do not hold with the view that Joe Hart is back on top form. I still think he will make mistakes that will cost City.Liverpool’s lack of any distraction in Europe may well help them but they rely too much on Luis Suarez.
Wayne Rooney says United are back in it but it will need a lot of teams to collapse before I can see them retaining their title. The fact that Arsenal are at the top is no surprise but there is still too much nervousness and anxiety about that team for me and although I would love to see them win the title I am not convinced.
My favourites remain Chelsea, my pre-season tip. I think Jose Mourinho will keep eking out results and if he can find a new goal-scorer in the January transfer window it will increase his chances of reclaiming the title even more.
Their game against Liverpool is going to be a tough test. In years gone by Chelsea would have overpowered Liverpool but they don’t have that sort of advantage any more. If Suarez is it at you might expect Liverpool to win but beating Chelsea at home is difficult so I’ll go 1-1.
MAN CITY v CRYSTAL PALACE
AG: I fancy Manuel Pellegrini to make a few changes to his team for this one but whichever side he picks it will be too strong for Palace. 3-0 City.
RK: Easy, 5-0. Tony Pulis has got Palace going a bit which is good to see but if City get into their stride it could be a case of just pick a number. The best result Palace can hope for is not to get a good hiding.
NEWCASTLE v ARSENAL
AG: Tough one to call. Arsenal won’t worry about travelling to Newcastle who are flying at the moment and you could argue why both sides can win this but I think they will cancel each other out and I’m going 2-2.
RK: This is the sort of game Arsenal are going to have to win if they want the title and although Newcastle beat Stoke 5-1 it was a result that flattered them beyond belief. I think the Gunners can win this 2-1.
EVERTON v SOUTHAMPTON
AG: Southampton have had a bit of wobble but they came bouncing back against Cardiff and they will be confident going into this game. Everton had a disappointing result against Sunderland and won’t want to lose any more ground and because of that I think they will nick it 2-1.
RK: This game depends on whether Roberto Martinez plays Ross Barkley. I have no idea why he left him out of the game against Sunderland because they are not as good without him in the side. Southampton were impressive against Cardiff and if they play as well as we know they can I think they’ll come away with a point. 2-2
NORWICH v MAN UNITED
AG: Norwich are too close to the drop zone for comfort and United are in good form at the moment but that doesn’t mean this is going to be a doddle for David Moyes. Gary Hooper is in good form for Norwich scoring five in his last seven games so he’ll be up for this particularly as United’s defence has been hit by injuries. However, I United have enough to win 1-0.
RK: Hooper is the only one who can get goals for Norwich and United have no problems dismantling opposition like this. 3-1 away win.
WEST HAM v WEST BROM
AG: Sam Allardyce has been given the dreaded vote of confidence by the West Ham board but if he loses this one I think he will still be under massive pressure. West Brom don’t get beaten easily away from home but I think the Hammers will win a dogged battle 1-0.
RK: I know David Sullivan, the owner of West Ham, said they will spend money in January but he didn’t say who will be spending that money so if Sam Allardyce loses this one, which I think he will 1-0, it could be curtains.
ASTON VILLA v SWANSEA
AG: Villa’s away form has kept them above water but they just can’t do it at Villa Park. Six defeats in nine games at home with just six goals scored tells you all you need to know. Swansea are hardly the best side in the world and although my head tells me it will be a draw I’m going for Swansea to win 1-0.
RK: We all wondered how Villa beat Arsenal and Man City and since then it has all gone wrong. They were awful at home against Crystal Palace and without Christian Benteke’s goals they are all over the shop. Swansea need a result and I can’t think of a better place for them to go than Villa Park at the moment. 2-0 away win.
HULL v FULHAM
AG: Fulham don’t get many goals but had a massive win at Norwich in midweek. Hull have an excellent home record and because of that I think they will win it 2-1.
RK: Fulham will have been lifted by the win at Norwich and although Hull are good at home I think it will be a 1-1 draw.
CARDIFF v SUNDERLAND
AG: I’m not surprised Malky Mackay has been shown the door and I fear for Cardiff. Malky brought most of those players into the club so they will feel a sense of loss and they are playing a side that has just beaten Everton. 2-0 Sunderland.
RK: It’s chaos at Cardiff and Sunderland have enough belief about them at the moment to win this 1-0. If Ole Gunnar Solksjaer is offered the Cardiff job he should say no.
TOTTENHAM v STOKE
AG: Stoke were excellent against Newcastle until the referee decided to intervene by sending two players and the manager odd and we all know what happened then. Stoke are better than that defeat suggests but the pressure on Tottenham’s new boss Tim Sherwood will give Spurs the edge. 1-0.
RK: Stoke look much better at the moment but I think Tottenham have had a bit of a lift with Sherwood getting the job. It’s a position he has been after for some time so now he has it he has to get on with it and prove he is good enough. He will come away with a point. 1-1.
Liverpool slipped from first to fourth in the Premier League after losing 2-1 at Manchester City on Thursday, leaving Arsenal in first place following a frantic Boxing Day programme.
Brendan Rodgers's Liverpool started the day in first place and they made an impressive start at the Etihad Stadium, with Philippe Coutinho giving the visitors a 24th-minute lead after a neat team move.
However, City captain Vincent Kompany headed home an equaliser seven minutes later and Alvaro Negredo put the hosts in front on the stroke of half-time with a tame shot that Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet could only palm into the net.
"The most important thing today was that we were losing 1-0 but we had the character and the trust to go for the win and we continued trying to attack," said City manager Manuel Pellegrini.
"I think it was very important to try to finish the year near the top of the table."
City, who have now won all nine of their home games this season, climb to second place, a point behind Arsenal, while Liverpool, for whom Raheem Sterling spurned a fine second-half chance, are three points off the pace.
"We're all very proud of the team tonight," said Liverpool manager Rodgers. "I thought how we played — the charisma in our football, and the passing in our game — was exceptional.
"We're bitterly disappointed not to win the game, but my overriding feeling is one of pride, because it was an outstanding performance."
Earlier, Theo Walcott had scored twice as Arsenal came from behind to win 3-1 against West Ham United at Upton Park.
Arsenal spurned several first-half chances and they were punished early in the second period when Carlton Cole put the hosts in front after Wojciech Szczesny spilled a shot from Kevin Nolan.
However, Walcott struck twice in three minutes to turn the game around, before Lukas Podolski crowned his comeback from a hamstring injury with a low strike in the 79th minute.
"We couldn't take our chances in the first half and we responded very well in the second half, in the end winning the game in a convincing way," said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
"I am proud of the character of this team because they are always focused and try to do well."
Chelsea also leapfrogged Liverpool, moving up to third place by beating Swansea City 1-0.
Belgian winger Eden Hazard scored the game's only goal in the 29th minute at Stamford Bridge, cutting in from the left in familiar fashion before letting fly with a low drive that squeezed beneath Gerhard Tremmel.
"With the three points and clean sheet, I am satisfied," said Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho. "But we had so many chances that you have to score at least once and create a more comfortable situation for yourselves."
Everton's hopes of making further ground on the Champions League contenders were thwarted, however, as they crashed to a 1-0 defeat at home to bottom club Sunderland.
Ki Sung-yueng scored the game's only goal from the penalty spot in the 25th minute, after Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard was sent off for a foul on the South Korea international.
It was Sunderland's first away win since April and left Gus Poyet's men three points from safety.
Manchester United doggedly overturned a two-goal deficit to win 3-2 at Hull City and register their fifth consecutive victory in all competitions.
Early goals from James Chester and David Meyler gave Hull a 2-0 lead, only for Chris Smalling and Wayne Rooney, with a sumptuous volley, to bring United level, before Chester scored a 66th-minute own goal.
"To be two down and come back to win is a great result," United manager David Moyes told the BBC. "There's a long way to go in the league and we have to keep picking up points. I believe we can be in the mix and challenge whoever is near the top."
Newcastle United closed to within three points of the Champions League places by coming from behind to overwhelm nine-man Stoke City 5-1 at St James' Park.
Stoke took the lead through Oussama Assaidi, but they had Glenn Whelan and Marc Wilson sent off, allowing Newcastle to prevail through a Loic Remy brace and goals from Yoan Gouffran, Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cisse.
Tottenham Hotspur's new permanent head coach Tim Sherwood saw his side draw 1-1 at home to West Bromwich Albion, for whom Jonas Olsson cancelled out Christian Eriksen's 36th-minute free-kick.
Southampton, meanwhile, ended a run of six games without victory by winning 3-0 at Cardiff City through a Jay Rodriguez brace and a Rickie Lambert strike.
Scott Parker scored a stunning 87th-minute winner as Fulham won 2-1 at Norwich City, but they remain in the bottom three due to Crystal Palace's 1-0 win at Aston Villa, which lifted Tony Pulis's men out of the drop zone.