It was after their impressive victory at Chelsea on 3 January that Pep Guardiola declared his Manchester City were back.
The 10 days since have reinforced that view, with impressive young England midfielder Phil Foden guiding the Blues back along the right path.
It might not have been very impressive but the Foden-inspired 1-0 victory over Brighton at Etihad Stadium moved City into the Premier League’s top three for the first time this season.
“It definitely feels like we’re back to our best. We’ve taken confidence from the last few results,” the 20-year-old said afterwards, with City now just four points from the summit – having been 11th in November.
It was also the first time, this season or last, that City have won seven games in a row in all competitions, or gone eight without defeat in the league or 14 unbeaten in all competitions.
Given leaders and local rivals Manchester United visit second-placed Liverpool on Sunday and have a resurgent Arsenal among their next opponents, while Jurgen Klopp’s men must also face Tottenham before January is over, it would be a brave man who ruled out City topping the table by the end of a month in which they entertain Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Sheffield United, and travel to West Brom.
Foden to the fore as City cope with absences
In a season in which injuries and coronavirus have robbed Guardiola of so many of his star players so often, it has been a time for others to step up.
No-one has done that more than Foden, who is developing in the way his manager always promised – even during the times when his handling of the midfielder was being questioned as Jadon Sancho prospered having left for Borussia Dortmund and more regular football.
“It was another good performance. He is a guy with a special instinct close to goal, not just with the left foot, but with the right foot. He deserves to play. His standards are higher,” said Guardiola.
“I try to judge the performance day by day and I have the feeling he lives his life 24 hours to play football. Today with a lot of distractions around our lives – clearly less now because we have to be at home – but when you see his face he is happy at training sessions and playing games.
“When that happens the rest is what everyone sees in his performance.”
Foden’s eighth goal of the season was a superb effort. Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne created the space but Foden spotted the opportunity, cutting inside the Brighton box before driving a low right-foot shot beyond Robert Sanchez.
“I don’t score too many with my right foot,” said Foden, before revealing he was enjoying the responsibility currently being afforded to him.
It means he now leads the City scoring charts – and after Raheem Sterling’s injury-time miss from the spot, he can’t be too far down the list to take over penalty duties.
And if anyone has benefited from the European Championships being put back a year, it is Foden, who would have been a risk last spring but is almost certain to be in Gareth Southgate’s squad this year.
“In the last few days, Phil has played against [Chelsea’s Cesar] Azpilicueta, one of the most incredible defenders in the Premier League, and was outstanding. It was the same against [Manchester United’s] Aaron Wan-Bissaka,” said Guardiola.
“I am pretty sure he would be selected if it was me. Gareth, I don’t know but I am sure he was really impressed by him, like all of us.”
Former Manchester City defender Micah Richards, added on Match of the Day: “I think he is a superstar and genuinely one of the best English talents we have produced for a long time. “
‘Joy to watch’
If there was a moment in this match where it was clear City had found themselves, it came a couple of minutes before Foden’s first-half winner.
Goalkeeper Ederson – who was keeping City’s 15th clean sheet in 19 games – came out to collect a corner, then, with a basketball-style pass, sent De Bruyne sprinting straight down the middle of the pitch.
Foden appeared at his right shoulder in support, then as a tackle came in on the England man, the ball broke to De Bruyne who flashed a shot towards the Brighton goal.
“The best footballing team in the league,” said former Scotland international Pat Nevin on BBC Radio 5 Live. “It’s beautiful. Every time I walk into the Etihad I feel excited because they have brilliant players. They are a joy to watch.”
Predictably, Guardiola was more circumspect: “In the last 20 minutes we struggled because they are really good.”
After an uncertain start to a delayed campaign, City now look anything but strugglers.