Premier League Team of the Weekend: Week 27
It was always clear Manchester City would attract precious little sympathy when the injuries began to stack up at the end of 2017. Striding away in the title race, a few absentees hardly signalled the end of the world for such a rich City squad. Despite this, there was considerable anxiety among City fans that the deep squad was close to breaking point in certain areas.
Now, after a weekend where everything seemed to fall City's way, anyone nervous about league leaders' immediate prospects have had their unfounded worries dispelled.
A 5-1 thrashing of Leicester -- able and spirited opponents for 45 minutes at least -- was followed a day later by nearest challengers Manchester United foundering at St James' Park Newcastle. The gap at the top of the Premier League, now more of a gulf if truth were told, has been further stretched to 16 points.
City, facing no more league games this month, can rest assured that they will -- despite their prolonged absence from league action -- begin March at least 13 points clear and with a game in hand.
The reason for the big break is solely positive, of course. Activity in three different cup competitions will keep City busy between now and the end of February, when they travel to Arsenal on March 1. Of more immediate interest is a trip to Switzerland to play the first of two Champions League round of 16 games with Basel.
A week later City are due in nearby Wigan for the fifth round FA Cup match that will precede a Wembley date with Arsenal to dispute this season's League Cup final. By the end of the month, City could potentially have clinched their first trophy of the season, made their first strides toward the quarterfinals of the Champions League, and moved into the last eight of the FA Cup. If February pans out like that, Pep Guardiola's players will begin to believe anything is possible for the rest of their campaign.
On top of all this, City's injury crisis is starting to abate. Phil Foden and John Stones returned for the Leicester game and are due to be followed in double quick time by David Silva, Leroy Sane, Fabian Delph and Gabriel Jesus. Going into March with a full squad will brighten prospects that City can hold their own under increasing pressure right through to the finishing tape.
The fear up to now has been of burn out. Only last week the Telegraph led with the theme that City were running out of gas. That theory was dismantled this weekend by a City side playing the same deliciously crisp possession football that has mesmerized opponents all season. Nobody disputes that the quality and effectiveness of this side's football has all but earned them the league title. It still has to be rubber stamped, but only a collapse as dramatic as it would be unexpected can stop Vincent Kompany from lifting the Premier League trophy, perhaps as early as the Manchester Derby on April 7.
As this delicious possibility sinks in for City fans, further progress in the FA Cup and, in particular, the Champions League will become a real possibility. The club's power brokers in Abu Dhabi have made no secret of the fact that it is continental exposure that they now crave most for this City team. On the verge of a third league title of the new era, City have only managed a single semifinal appearance in the flagship tournament so far. On that grand occasion, Manuel Pellegrini's timid tactics saw to it that the club went out against Real Madrid with nothing more than a whimper.
Things right now are markedly different for City. Imbued with the confidence only such an unprecedented series of results can bring, the players clearly have the belief to succeed. With players returning to health, this squad is capable of giving the best of the continent's big hitters a run for their money.
There may be other opportunities in the future, but one cannot help thinking that this year, with the simultaneous rise in form of the side's most influential players (Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Fernandinho, Raheem Sterling and Sane) and the vast improvement in some of the squad's previously weaker performers (Nicolas Otamendi, Delph), represents a golden opportunity to steal a march on a field of contenders -- both domestic and international -- that seem in some part below par this season.
Add to this the avalanche of goals from Sergio Aguero, plus the truly remarkable contribution of Ederson in goal, and it is not difficult to see why the sky remains the limit for Manchester City's 2017-18 vintage.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.
Everton made an encouraging first step in atoning for the Arsenal debacle last week as a more positive setup eased the home side to a 3-1 win against Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Both teams meandered through a goalless opening half before a five-minute blitz after the interval saw Gylfi Sigurdsson and Oumar Niasse hand Everton a two-goal lead. Tom Davies added a third as the hosts scored more than twice in a match for the first time in 10 games prior to the visitors grabbing a penalty consolation.
Ten of the starting XI in this match also started the last home win against Leicester. A settled centre-back pairing is still a priority, but the five-man midfield finally has a balanced look to it. This team and system should point the way forward for manager Sam Allardyce as a run of winnable games lie ahead.
While this has been a season to forget for most of the new signings, one of the more recent arrivals is bucking the trend. Operating a level above his teammates in the first half, Theo Walcott revelled in the freedom provided by an overlapping full-back outside of him and offers a dynamic change of pace lacking elsewhere in the team.
An unwanted distraction was the booing of midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin upon his introduction as a late substitute. While a stream of dismal performances from the player are the reason behind such outcry from supporters, booing because of a poor attitude is unlikely to have any impact for those exact reasons. As such there is no obvious benefit to booing your own players, irrespective of how poorly they perform.
The other aspect is that it makes Schneiderlin the focal point and distracts from the positives in this match. If Schneiderlin does not spend enough energy when playing for Everton, then supporters should focus their energy on backing the players that do want to contribute.
Manager rating out of 10
7 -- The hope is that this win marks the end of Allardyce's constant tinkering with the starting XI as Everton try to establish consistency.
Player ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Jordan Pickford, 7 -- Some awkward-looking but effective saves kept the away side out when needed. Unfortunate to concede after getting two hands to the Crystal Palace penalty.
DF Seamus Coleman, 6 -- A rusty outing as his lack of football showed at times on only his second appearance in 11 months. A muscle injury cut short his afternoon at half-time.
DF Michael Keane, 7 -- Third successive start as the centre-back benefits from a run of games after an inconsistent spell beforehand. Strong in defence, aside from a couple of loose passes early on.
DF Eliaquim Mangala, 5 -- Delivered a shaky performance on his home debut before injury struck during the first half. Twice fortunate to escape as a poor pass and weak challenge both went unpunished.
DF Cuco Martina, 7 -- A second assist in as many matches, both with his left foot, capped another good display. Faultless attitude in an unfamiliar role has led to improved performances of late.
MF Idrissa Gueye, 8 -- Excelled in a first half that was otherwise low on talking points and came close to breaking the deadlock, although a heavy knock dimmed his second-half impact. Afforded a welcome rest before the end as Schneiderlin took his place.
MF Wayne Rooney, 7 -- Far more effective once his decision-making improved after an erratic first half. Used the ball intelligently in the second half and works better with the energy of Davies and Gueye alongside him.
MF Theo Walcott, 8 -- Effective with and without the ball, making a game-high 8 dribbles and winning a team-high three tackles. A constant threat as his searing pace and dribbling ability troubled the visitors.
MF Tom Davies, 7 -- Quick to react in the penalty area as his first goal in 10 months added a pleasing footnote to a performance that grew more influential as the match wore on.
MF Gylfi Sigurdsson, 8 -- Restored to the starting XI after his senseless omission against Arsenal, the midfielder ensured Allardyce should think twice before revisiting that tactic. Scored the opening goal and played a key role in the other two.
FW Oumar Niasse, 7 -- An archetypal Niasse display. Despite the basics often escaping him, the Everton striker ended up scoring and assisting in the same Premier League game for the first time.
DF Ashley Williams, 5 -- Jittery all-round performance capped by the hand ball leading to the Crystal Palace penalty.
DF Jonjoe Kenny, 7 -- Defended with his usual tenacity and often pushed forward to support Walcott on the right flank.
MF Morgan Schneiderlin, NR -- Entered to a chorus of boos and left without making much of an impression.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.