Pep Guardiola’s side have spent the last few weeks and months on the outside of this most open of Premier League title races, stalking the early pacesetters and consistently picking up points.
Now, after two John Stones goals, a sublime Ilkay Gundogan strike and a late Raheem Sterling free-kick secured a fine 4-0 victory over Crystal Palace, they are in position to take command.
Guardiola and his players knew that they would be able to make up lost ground on at least one of their title challengers whatever the result between Liverpool and Manchester United, but the goalless draw offered them an opportunity to gain on both.
City moved up to second – above the reigning champions – and to within two points of the leaders with a game in hand, to be played against Aston Villa at home on Wednesday night. A win will put them top of the pile.
These are still very early days, of course. Despite it being mid-January, City have played just 17 games – not even halfway through their own league campaign.
But of all the contenders, they are quickly becoming the most convincing. This victory stretched their unbeaten run to nine games, including seven wins and six clean sheets.
This was no foregone conclusion. Palace had taken points on consecutive trips to the Etihad, including a stunning 3-2 win on this ground in late 2018.
But Guardiola had never gone three straight home league games without beating an opponent in his managerial career and Roy Hodgson’s side could not make history here, in that respect.
Still, it took City a while to get going, with just one shot on Vicente Guaita’s goal in the first 23 minutes as Palace dug in.
Hodgson’s plan to sit tight, frustrate and threaten on the break had worked well on the last two trips, after all. But without Wilfried Zaha – missing after picking up a knock against Arsenal – it lacked a menacing out-ball.
And in any case, everyone has a plan until they play against Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian’s influence on the game grew with a steady, incremental menace during the opening half hour until the 100th assist of his City career eventually arrived.
It was one of his best – a cross hit with the outside of his right foot, sending the ball on a wicked, unpredictable trajectory.
As Palace’s defence panicked, Stones rose in front of James Tomkins to nod past the diving Vicente Guaita. Four-and-a-half years after arriving from Everton, it was his first league goal for City. He would not have to wait so long for his second.
Before that though, Gundogan would establish daylight. When Palace failed to clear their lines on a De Bruyne corner, the City midfielder tussled for possession on the edge of the area with Andros Townsend.
Once he had come away with the ball, he opened his right foot and bent the ball into the top right-hand corner. It was Gundogan’s third goal in four league games – reflecting his new, more adventurous role in Guardiola’s system.
Stones’ second was that of a seasoned poacher, feeding on scraps inside the penalty area. When his centre-back partner Ruben Dias had a header beaten away by Guaita, Stones was on hand to sweep the rebound in with his left foot.
Remarkably, he was on for a perfect hat-trick, but that did not stop Sterling from assuming free-kick duties late on. Having failed to convert from 12 yards in stoppage time against Brighton, he made this opportunity look easy, guiding the ball out of Guaita’s reach from the edge of the box.
If City were going under the radar before, they are not now. With the defence resolute, the attack improving and the difficult start to the season behind them, Guardiola and his players will start to wonder what the rest of the campaign holds for them.
There remains a long way to go, but City are unquestionably moving in the right direction.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies