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Manchester City's Title Challenge Will Be Made or Broken Off the Field

Is there something weird in the sports drinks that they're giving the big teams this season, or something? It's like they're all being fed Michael Jordan's 'Special Stuff' from Space Jam, but in reverse.

Manchester City, in particular, are suffering. Runaway title favourites at the start of the season, they've stumbled down into third place in the league and have seen their familiar Champions League failings come back more than once already.

While the omens were all excellent for City at the beginning of the campaign - battering the reigning champions in just the second game of the season was a pretty loud statement of intent - it didn't take long for the weaknesses which had hamstrung them in their previous title defence to come back and bite.

In Manuel Pellegrini's defence, he knew that the problem was...well, in his defence. Last season saw a porous back line breached more often than any other team in the top four, ​with Vincent Kompany's powers appearing to wane ahead of schedule, Eliaquim Mangala taking time to adjust to the Premier League and Martin Demichelis still being, well, Martin Demichelis.

Nicolas Otamendi arrived to remedy the problem coming in for nearly £30m despite having never played right at the sharp end of a competitive league. His one season in La Liga saw his Valencia side finish nearly 20 points off winners Barcelona, and he only once even played more than 20 league games in a season for Porto.

Otamendi is working out about as well as you might expect.

Fortunately for City, Kompany has managed to fight his way out of the slump of last season and restore himself at the head of the list of the Premier League's top defenders. When he's played this season, he's looked absolutely imperious, and opposition forwards have wilted in front of him. Only twice have Everton failed to score at home this season - once against Louis van Gaal's bore draw machine and once by Kompany, near single-handed. He's been little short of magnificent.

Less fortunately for City, it appears that whatever repairs were done on him over the summer were done with blu-tack and pound shop sellotape. The key phrase in the last paragraph was "when he's played." When he hasn't, the City defence has been a big, ugly tyre fire, tromping around in sky-blue shirts and ruining Manuel Pellegrini's weekends.

When Kompany has been on the pitch this season, City have conceded three goals. That's it. That's in the best part of ten full games - minus 15 minutes against Juventus when he went off at 1-1.

At the time of writing, City have played 13 games without him in the starting lineup. In that time, they haven't kept a single clean sheet. Not one. They've shipped 21 goals in that time, and lost five games.

If you're aware of what numbers are, you may also have noticed that Kompany's failed to start more than half of City's games this season. As this is written, he's about to miss another crunch Champions League game, this time against Borussia Monchengladbach. It's not just how bad City are without him which is a concern - it's how often they're left facing that reality.

Still, at least they've got one of the most deadly attacks in the country - that should keep them in business. Right? Well, there's a matching problem up top too.

It'd be hard to argue that Sergio Aguero isn't one of the most dangerous attacking players in the world. He's the point around which the rest of the City attack revolves...when he's there. Without him, Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling are forced to do their best to chip in from non-striking roles, while Wilfried Bony tries his best to look like someone who gets regular first-team football.

Once again, the phrase is "when he's there". Aguero, like Kompany, has started no more than half of City's games this season. Like Kompany, the last time he started more than 30 league games in a season was all the way back in 2011/12. Like Kompany, he's started fewer than 70% of City's league games over the past three season. Like Kompany, it's hard to see City winning the title unless he stays fit and firing.

The silver lining for City? Arsenal are their main title challengers, and have at least as many injury worries. This season's title race could quite literally come down to the survival of the fittest.

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