LONDON (Reuters) - As Stoke City striker Peter Crouch put it after scoring the winning goal against Southampton on Saturday, “training grounds are a dark place when you lose before an international break.”
Chelsea’s opulent training centre in leafy Surrey will be one of the bleaker ones over the next 10 days but the few Manchester City and Manchester United players not required by their country will make their respective headquarters sunny places.
With seven games played, the two Manchester clubs are pulling ahead in the Premier League, justifying the verdict of those pundits who predicted they would see off the challenge of London and Liverpool and decide the title between them in the most parochial of scraps.
The way Pep Guardiola’s City fell away after winning their first six games last season was a useful reminder that early results can be misleading.
What is striking this time, however, is the quality in depth that both Manchester clubs appear to possess after heavy close-season recruitment, enabling them to run up a five-point lead over the field while dropping only two points each, conceding only two goals and scoring three per game.
City, with their extraordinary pace in attack, recently struck 16 times in three league games, beating two top-six clubs (Liverpool and Watford) in the process.
Any suggestion that they would miss leading scorer Sergio Aguero after he broke a rib in a midweek car accident was shrugged aside in a 1-0 victory away to champions Chelsea on Saturday that was more convincing than the scoreline.
“It was after a game in pre-season that Pep said we need to get the mentality to hate to lose,” said Saturday’s match-winner Kevin de Bruyne.
They must be forgetting what defeat tastes like.
The same goes for United, narrowly beaten by Real Madrid in the pre-season Super Cup, but victors in nine games out of 10 since, only Stoke City having managed to hold them.
Unusually for a Jose Mourinho team, they have scored four goals six times during that run and like City are making light of injuries to players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba.
With Arsenal starting slowly, last season’s top two, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, have again led the London challenge but Antonio Conte’s champions have already dropped more home points — eight — in four games than in the whole of the last campaign.
Spurs, with Harry Kane in outstanding goalscoring form, have looked good in patches, including Saturday’s 4-0 demolition of Huddersfield Town but need to prove they can win the crucial games.
City did that at Stamford Bridge in hugely impressive fashion and will take some stopping, with their neighbours the best bet to do so.
Reporting by Steve Tongue, editing by Pritha Sarkar