An 18th win in a row for Manchester City and, with it, a world record suddenly begins to loom. Victory over Arsenal restored their 10-point lead at the top of the Premier League but with six more wins City will equal the longest-ever run of 24 consecutive wins in club football in all competitions.
The mark was set 10 years ago by Brazilian club side Coritiba and such is the determination of Pep Guardiola’s side – who celebrate blocks and interceptions as wholeheartedly as goals – then it is an achievement that is firmly in their sights. Can anyone stop them at present?
In European football Real Madrid won 22 games in a row in 2014-15 and Bayern Munich set a mark of 21 last season and they are closing in on those totals.
The league title already is theirs, surely, and even if there are 13 games still to go it is almost inconceivable that they can be caught. Stunningly they are 19 points ahead of the champions Liverpool with Manchester United, Leicester City and, yes, West Ham United left clinging onto their coat-tails.
Arsenal will feel encouraged that they stayed in the contest but they never really came close to claiming a point and remain in 10th place – almost as close to the relegation places as they are to the top four. There was further concern as they lost Rob Holding to an apparent concussion after he collided with Joao Cancelo.
The bedrock for City was their cast-iron belief that they would keep yet another clean sheet with Ruben Dias and John Stones – being watched by England assistant manager Steve Holland and a shoo-in for Gareth Southgate’s squad for next month’s World Cup qualifiers – such determined and focussed presences in the heart of their defence. It is just four goals conceded in their last 14 league games.
The ease with which City took the lead – for what surprisingly turned out to be the only goal – was remarkable. Remarkable at how smoothly it was taken and remarkable how rotten Arsenal’s defending was. Dias switched the ball out to Riyad Mahrez on the right and he ran at Kieran Tierney with the Arsenal left-back retreating and allowing the cross which was easily met by Raheem Sterling who guided a header high into the net. Holding – seven inches taller than Sterling – and Hector Bellerin just stood and watched. Only 87 seconds had passed.
Sterling had already miscued a shot at the far post, when unmarked, and soon after was picked out with only goalkeeper Bernd Leno to beat but could not adjust his feet quickly enough before being crowded out.
Holding and his central defensive partner Pablo Mari did not know who to mark at times as De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva swapped positions and, often, Ilkay Gundogan was the furthest player forward with Cancelo stepping into midfield as City claimed 70 per cent possession and Mahrez remained high and wide as Guardiola demanded his players stretch the play.
Arsenal were reduced to hurriedly giving them the ball back. They appeared to have no other option.
After Granit Xhaka was dispossessed by Fernandinho a chance opened up for Gundogan but his first touch was heavy and Holding reacted quickly to block his shot before, finally, Arsenal gained a foot-hold.
Ederson easily held Tierney’s crisp half-volley and then Gundogan was alert to intercept as Bellerin shaped to reach Nicolas Pepe’s cut-back. Still it was returned to Pepe who dragged his shot wide. It was better from Arsenal with Tierney delivering a series of crosses as he combined with Bukayo Saka.
The half-time break did not help Arsenal. City re-grouped and re-doubled their efforts with De Bruyne electing first for power as he blasted over and then for finesse as he floated a chip narrowly past the post with Leno having to react sharply to palm away Gundogan’s side-footed effort after the ball broke to him.
Guardiola must have felt his team should have been further ahead by now and turned to his bench, bringing on striker Gabriel Jesus as he replaced De Bruyne who has only just returned to fitness.
There was a sign as to City’s determination to keep another clean sheet as John Stones headed the ball out of play and reacted quickly to make up the ground and beat Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to the throw-in, ushering it over the byline with Ruben Dias running over to high-five his team-mate.
That commitment was evident again as Fernandinho blocked Saka’s attempt to swivel and shot before there was a glaring miss at the other end by Cancelo who exchanged passed with Jesus, feinted to shoot, beating Mari – only to curl the ball with the outside of his boot just past the far post.
In the end Sterling’s goal was enough.