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Man City's next three matches -- Man Utd., Swansea, Spurs -- will either decide title race or open it back up

Man City's next three matches -- Man Utd., Swansea, Spurs -- will either decide title race or open it back up


Whether met by blessed relief or reluctant acceptance, Manchester City's long winning run has at last been ended with a 2-1 defeat in the freezing cold of Kharkiv, Ukraine to a sprightly, well-balanced and highly motivated Shakhtar Donetsk side.

This was always a match pitched into the wrong place in City's calendar. With Champions League qualification already long assured and a critical Manchester derby awaiting them at the weekend, it was clear Pep Guardiola had both a tough decision to make, but also the easiest one. In saving the majority of his big-game players for the domestic spat, he may have handed qualification to the Ukrainians and ended City's record, but -- if it results in a win at Old Trafford this weekend -- it will no doubt be seen in the blue half of Manchester as a worthwhile sacrifice.

If it heralds a fall-off in form for City and the beginnings of a closer battle at the top of the table with United, it will go down as a turning point in this season's so-far rather one-sided battle for supremacy.

With the expected returns of David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Vincent Kompany and Kevin De Bruyne, City at full force are a totally different prospect to the side put out in the Champions League against Shakhtar.

It has been perhaps the feature of the season so far to see a side with so much attacking intent, flying at opponents from all angles with teams finding few answers in the struggle to contain this omnipotent force.

In recent weeks a glint of hope has appeared, with the success of Feyenoord, Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham -- all relatively modest outfits this season -- in closing down the space City could operate in and shutting up shop for a point. That all four were ultimately beaten suggests two things: City's much vaunted spirit which has been encapsulated by the supporters' refrain "We'll' fight to the end" and -- more importantly -- the sheer weight of numbers of City's attacking possibilities.

This is a side that is almost entirely unpredictable. It has so many arms that it is nearly impossible to shut down all the channels and be sure that you have nullified the threat. Manchester United this weekend will be the next side to take up the challenge and may have a little more in their arsenal than the majority of City's opponents thus far in a 2017-2018 season littered with glittering successes.

Jose Mourinho's infamous pragmatic approach will be set a real task: how to contain and then beat a multi-pronged attacking threat that just refuses to lie down and be subdued.

It is difficult to turn away from the feeling that, for both these clubs, this match represents something of a pivotal point in the season, if not in the wider scale of things, too. For City, mounting evidence that they are the Premier League's best side and champions in waiting will be confirmed with a victory on the patch of their greatest rivals. Opening an 11-point lead at the beginning of December with an away win at the second-place side would underline that powerful dominance.

For Mourinho and United, it is perhaps even more critical. This is the Portuguese's second season in charge at Old Trafford, traditionally one which bears fruit in his well-documented short cycles at the clubs he has served. Given that the third season of Mourinho often heralds downturn, disturbance and closure, this season would appear to be his big chance at Manchester United.

Further afield, a powerful City season also could have repercussions for an Arsenal side already in visible decline but also a Chelsea team perhaps coming to the end of the brief Antonio Conte era and even a Tottenham side that has begun to look more fragile and a little less likely in the past few weeks. A convincing City win at this stage, then, may rubber stamp their path to more than just this season's Premier league title.

Mourinho also will be well aware that, in closing down City's flying wide men and baulking some of the flow from their creative hub of D.Silva and De Bruyne, all the aforementioned "successful" clubs have been beaten. This outcome for United at the weekend will not be any kind of success. They must not only stem the league's most potent creativity but also find a way to beat it.

That they must do this without game-changer Paul Pogba simply serves to make a tough ask even more tricky.

There can be no doubt that this weekend's game is a pivotal moment in the season's train of development. If United prevail, new doubts about City's durability will surface. If City come out on top, we may be seeing the emergence of an unstoppable force beyond just the 2017-18 season.

Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.

Troy Deeney is happy at Watford and is unlikely to be sold next month, manager Marco Silva has said.

Captain Deeney, 29, returned to Watford's starting line-up in the 1-1 draw with Tottenham last weekend after scoring from the bench at Manchester United in his first match back following a three-game suspension.

But Deeney's start against Spurs was only his fourth for the Hornets in the Premier League this season after failing to land a regular place under new boss Silva.

Deeney has been linked with a move away from Vicarage Road when the transfer window opens next month -- with sources telling ESPN FC that Everton manager Sam Allardyce is among his pursuers -- but Silva insists the club have no interest in moving their skipper on.

"I'm sure he's happy here," Silva said. "What he did today in training was work normally and he comes here with that approach to his teammates and all the staff.

"I want him to fight and work every day to keep his position and if he does not keep his position I expect him to work hard to win it back. That is what I expect of Troy.

"I don't want to talk about Troy, Richarlison, Stefano Okaka, Isaac Success leaving in January. In each moment we will decide what is the best for Watford.

"I don't know anything about any offers for Troy. I don't want anybody to leave in January. We only want to buy."

Silva meanwhile revealed that defender Younes Kaboul has suffered a setback in his recovery from a hamstring injury.

The former Tottenham defender has played just twice this season after he limped off in Watford's 2-0 victory at Southampton back in September.

Kaboul had been expected to return to first-team action in December, but Silva, who was speaking ahead of his side's Premier League trip to Burnley on Saturday, confirmed it is unlikely the Frenchman will feature until the New Year.

Long-term absentees' Craig Cathcart and Nathaniel Chalobah will also be absent from Watford's travelling party to Turf Moor, while Miguel Britos, injured against Newcastle last month, could also miss out.

"Younes is still unavailable to play and it is a big concern for us a team," Silva added. "He's a big player for us.

"We also have problems over really important players like Chalobah and doubts over Britos. It won't be fast but during December it looks impossible for Younes to play again."

Despite the calendar reading December, there are just seven days to save the title race. A single week will either slow Manchester City down or turn the Premier League into a procession. The most important period of the season is about to begin.

Pep Guardiola's team faces a three-game stretch that contains two potentially epic matches. They start at Old Trafford for a derby with a host of subplots.

Manchester United are not used to being second-best in town. They are eight points behind their neighbours and cannot afford to slip further adrift. The bad blood between Jose Mourinho and his Catalan rival goes a long way back. It has always been a clash of footballing cultures when these managers meet and the Portuguese's resentment toward Guardiola is palpable.

City are unbeaten in the league and have only drawn once. At times during the campaign they have played in a spellbinding manner. Their recent form has not been quite as sparkling, but late-goal victories against Huddersfield Town, Southampton and West Ham United have shown another side to their character: the ability to grind out victories against opposition bent on defending deep and killing the game. The knack of grabbing last-gasp victories is the hallmark of champions.

For Mourinho, those games show that City can be stopped. The United manager would have to be exceptionally brave -- or foolhardy -- to set his side up in an extremely negative manner for the derby. There has already been criticism about the 54-year-old's tendency to resort toward conservative and defensive methods. Old Trafford expects a certain amount of flair from the Red Devils. If Mourinho parks the bus and is then beaten, the fury will stretch from the Stretford End to the boardroom.

United are a big, powerful side. They have pace up front and a physical midfield. They are strong in the areas in which City are weakest. Their performance in last weekend's 3-1 victory over Arsenal showed just what they can do. At the Emirates, United sat deep but broke at speed. The plan was to get the ball to Paul Pogba for the Frenchman to advance at pace, with Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku surging ahead. They caused havoc for the home side's defence.

Mourinho took advantage of Arsenal's tendency to overcommit the midfield. City barely have a midfield. Fernandinho polices the area in front of the defence, but the greatest strength of Guardiola's team is the front five. They press defenders hard and do much of their ball-winning in the attacking third of the field. Sides that try to play out from the back against City suffer.

To be successful in the derby, United need to get the ball forward quickly. Without Pogba -- suspended for his dangerous tackle on Hector Bellerin -- Mourinho's midfield does not have the same thrust.

It is likely that Mourinho will use Marouane Fellaini in a similar manner to the Europa League final against Ajax in May. United knocked the ball long to the Belgian to avoid the press. The hope is that Fellaini's physical approach will trouble the City defence. 

After their trip to Old Trafford, Guardiola takes his men to South Wales to play Swansea City three days later. Paul Clement's team go into the weekend stranded at the bottom of the table and do not look equipped to worry City. What they can do is take heart from the way fellow bottom-half teams have frustrated the leaders until the late stages of games over the past month. Clement's ideal scenario may be that City emerge from a bruising derby with key injuries.

The final act of the week-long saga is at the Etihad, where City host a stumbling Tottenham Hotspur team. Mauricio Pochettino's side entered the season believing that they were the main threat to City. That has not been the case so far as they have been hampered by injuries and a crisis of confidence as opponents have worked out how to nullify their strengths.

Part of City's success this season has been the way the wing-backs have performed. Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph have functioned above expectations and are expected to supplement the midfield when their team is under pressure in the middle of the park. 

Walker cost City £50 million from Tottenham in the summer and many believed that the London club got the better end of the deal. It has not proved that way to this point.

Pochettino's team get their width from wing-backs. Walker and Danny Rose were an important part of the side's development. With Rose out of favour, Spurs have struggled to generate any threat from their wing-backs.

Teams have developed methods to stop Tottenham. They sit deep and crowd the areas where Harry Kane likes to operate. Pochettino's midfielders are talented and are unlikely to be outrun by opponents, but they struggle to unlock tight, compact defences. They match up well against City, though.

Guardiola will not be concerned with stopping Spurs. City will play their normal game. This means Tottenham will have a chance to dominate the midfield and determine the pace of the game. City's defence has flaws and Kane has the potential to cause chaos within the home team's back line.

Tottenham cannot afford defeat. They are already 18 points behind City and are now engaged in a battle for the Champions League places. Their run of form has left them with little margin for error.

Given City's lead at the top, they can afford a draw or two. To keep the season alive, however, United and Tottenham -- and perhaps Swansea -- need victories. This seven-day run will be an examination of City's mettle. It will be even more testing for the three teams trying to stop them from running away with the title.

Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.