As Manchester City look to fulfil more historic feats this season, the forthcoming period could be as crucial as any to their hopes.
Games against Arsenal, Everton and Chelsea over the next week will be pivotal in the Premier League title race, while Maurizio Sarri’s Blues await in the League Cup final. Then it is Schalke in the Champions League’s round of 16 and a visit to Middlesbrough or Newport in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
The challenge of winning four trophies in a season, unprecedented in English football, still remains a possibility, however imposing.
For Ilkay Gundogan it is one they must embrace. After last season’s Premier League and League Cup triumphs, he says the City mantra is always to do better.
“We will try to be in every competition as long as possible,” Gundogan told Sport360 exclusively. “That’s what our target should be.
“Already we are in one final, like last year, the League Cup. It’s always good to win this trophy even though some people think we should not prioritise this one.
“But we are in the final, it will be a special feeling to be at Wembley, against Chelsea, a tough team, and it’s going to be a great game, and we want to win it as well.
“Then we have the three other competitions to go for. Not including the Premier League, at least we can try to be better than last season in two of the competitions, and if we reach that point then we have a chance of doing it.
“We have reached the same in the FA Cup and we have the Champions League that we want to do well in as well. We are feeling good and want to push as much as possible.”
After eight-successive wins, six clean sheets and 33 goals scored, City were upset 2-1 by Newcastle in midweek.
But Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Leicester means the gap is five points rather than the seven expected and hope remains.
Pep Guardiola will expect a response against Arsenal on Sunday and Gundogan recalls how chastening defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester spurred their recent winning run, which included victory over Liverpool.
“It was disappointing for our run to end [at Newcastle], but we have to keep going and keep believing,” he added.
“I think the games we lost in December opened our eyes a little bit you know.
“We were not efficient enough anymore and made some mistakes so we conceded goals too easily.
“After these games we knew we had to improve, especially defensively, because the quality we have up front is ridiculous and we know we can always score.
“I think in the title race it’s crucial to be defensively as solid as possible.
“With the quality we have in the team, it feels like every player can replace the other one and the quality does not drop.
“There’s huge potential in that team and we have to show it on the pitch. These home games with Arsenal and Chelsea are very important.
“We are going out to win these games, but you can’t deny both have a lot of quality and it’s very important to be good defensively against these teams and not concede – and then I believe we can win both games with our quality.”
On the subject of quality, Gundogan admitted surprise at Mesut Ozil’s struggles to get into the Arsenal starting line-up.
Having played with and against his German compatriot and friend, he said Ozil, at his best, was comparable to City’s playmaker and assist king Kevin De Bruyne.
“Both are game changers,” said Gundogan. “Kevin is a little bit more aggressive in his style and, at Mesut’s best, both are on a similar level.
“I think people always criticise Mesut because they think his attitude on the pitch is not a good one, that he doesn’t care that much.
“But I think people just struggle to accept that you can have the more emotional kind of players, the more aggressive ones and you have players like him, you know, that need maybe this calmness for their game.
“It looks a bit more elegant and slow, but believe me it’s so difficult to defend against these kind of players. They make everything look so easy and I think sometimes you forget to appreciate these kind of things.
“Obviously we always watch games and, even me, we always think we know better. But on the pitch it’s always a different story.
“A player like him, with his huge talent, I don’t think it just surprises just me, but a lot of people, that he doesn’t play regularly.”
He added: “Of course I have sympathy for him. Also, because I know the more regularly you play, the easier it is because you have the rhythm and just keep going and you don’t think about certain things too much.
“My experience from the last couple of years at City is that you get your game time and then the next few games there’s always someone coming in with similar quality, ridiculous quality, and our manager in these kind of cases has a very tough job.
“He always has to choose who to pick and try to divide game time throughout the whole squad. That’s a very tough thing to do. In a team like Manchester City, Arsenal, and other big clubs, it’s quite difficult just to have the same 11 players starting every week
“From my own experience, the more you play, back-to-back games, the better you feel, with more self confidence and rhythm.”
Where Ozil’s future at Arsenal remains uncertain, more so with the arrival of Denis Suarez from Barcelona, Guardiola has made it clear he wants to keep Gundogan at City.
Talks have taken place on extending the midfielder’s contract that ends in 2020.
And Gundogan said: “I’m happy where I am right now. I enjoy my football, I don’t think in a sporting way there is any other place to be right now. But I still have 18 months to go. I’m 28 now, not the youngest anymore, but I don’t think there is any pressure, not for the club, not for me to rush it.”
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