Pep Guardiola did not expect Manchester City to be heading into the New Year with a commanding lead in the Premier League title race after trailing Chelsea for much of the season.
A 1-0 win over Brentford secured a tenth successive league victory for the Blues to extend their lead over the Champions League winners, with Liverpool a further point behind but with a game in hand.
City have achieved a nine-point swing on Chelsea in a month after a flawless December featuring seven wins in 29 days, and the team’s momentum is threatening to turn a promising three-pronged title race into a procession.
If that has turned neutral blue over Christmas, it has surprised the City manager.
Guardiola could still remember being five points behind Chelsea after 10 games, or when they returned from the November international break against Everton six points off top spot and in third place; Chelsea had cruised past Leicester 3-0 and Liverpool had smashed four past Arsenal the previous day to pile the pressure on the Blues for their game in hand that weekend.
The City boss also had the Boxing Day win over Leicester firmly in mind as a lesson in how quickly good things can come to an end.
“It’s an unexpected situation. I didn’t expect a month ago when we were four or five or six points behind Chelsea and Liverpool to be in this position,” he said, “but we have 54 points more to play for.
“The best example we spoke many times about. When everything is taken for granted, you can be 4-0 up and in 20 minutes it is 4-3. If we hadn’t scored the fifth goal [against Leicester] I can assure you that this game could not be won, and we would have drawn or lost against Leicester.
“That is why we have to be patient, recover people, what’s next, how they play, which ones are going to play and after another one, and after, another one. The run is going to finish sooner or later, we are going to lose a game, because it’s going to happen, so be calm, relax and try again, and next one, and try again.”
City can turn the screw even more as they take on Arsenal in a lunchtime kick-off on New Year’s Day before their rivals are in action, although it does mean a quick turnaround for the players.
Guardiola made four changes to his team between Leicester and Brentford and has been boosted since by the return of Kyle Walker to training after the right-back missed the last four matches.
Even if Rodri and John Stones are unlikely to be involved, the City boss has a full complement of forwards that he can choose to rotate as the full squad is squeezed to keep the side fresh and hungry for every match.
“The most important thing is the desire and the commitment. The team has to say: yeah, I want to do it, I want to go there, and try to go again and try to win the game. They compete against each other,” said Guardiola.
“We have five or six incredible strikers and we can just play three. And everyone was involved. Raheem [Sterling] and Riyad [Mahrez] were the best players against Leicester and [against Brentford] they didn’t play one minute.
“But in this kind of period everyone will be involved. And everyone makes their incredible contribution and that is why we are where we are.”