Earlier in the season, few people would have given Manchester City a prayer.
A shaky spell of form saw the doubters and critics come out en masse, drawing premature conclusion that Pep Guardiola’s side had completed their cycle and were fresh out of ideas.
At the Etihad, however, work continued to be done.
An early home drubbing by Leicester City before draws against the likes of Leeds and West Ham were soon erased from the memory, as City regrouped and regained composure.
Now, life could not look much more rosy.
Pep Guardiola won’t admit it, but this season could be his best ever chance for the quadruple
Guardiola’s men have powered back to the summit of English football, currently holding a 14-point lead at the top.
Champions League progression to the quarter-finals is sewn up with a comfortable progression ahead of German outsiders Borussia Monchengladbach, while a place in the last eight of the FA Cup has already been booked.
With City already penciled in to yet again feature in the Carabao Cup final this season – against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham on April 25 – the ‘big Q’ question is on the lips of everybody once again.
The quadruple? Can they?
It is a near impossible feat which has felt within the reaches of City for some time yet now, in the strangest of seasons, it seems like a genuine possibility.
As always, many obstacles still line the path to glory, though Guardiola will be quietly confident that the most historic of seasons could still yet unfold. Sportsmail took a closer look…
City find themselves in a moment right now where everything just seems to be clicking.
It is the elite mentality of a team in form and Guardiola’s side look to be riding the wave into the sunset.
Fixtures, however, are set to continue pouring in thick and fast.
The downside of being on for an unprecedented quadruple is the challenge itself in getting through the swathes of teams standing in the way.
The current crop of stars know just what it means to sweep up England’s domestic honours
Now City have cast aside Monchengladbach in the Champions League, cup action again immediately beckons in the form of an FA Cup showdown with Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton on Saturday.
City are then afforded seven days off between arduous encounters with Leicester – who subjected them to a 5-2 humbling earlier in the campaign – Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United, who have already taken points from them, and a plucky Aston Villa side capable of serving up all manner of surprises.
It will be a true test of pedigree if City come out entirely unscathed with an immaculate winning record.
Following the Carabao Cup final pitting Guardiola up against his old nemesis Mourinho, league fixtures against Crystal Palace, Chelsea, Newcastle, Brighton and Everton see out the season.
On paper, each of these sides could have something desperate to play for, be it to avoid relegation or secure a top four finish.
Supporters aren’t present this season but City are powering on at a relentless pace
A potential FA cup final may well be bolted onto the end of this run, meaning City have little room in which to put a foot out of line. Points can afford to be dropped in the league given the current margin of safety, though Guardiola will be acutely aware of the detrimental impact a series of poor results can have on his side.
Likewise, keeping the Champions League run going and the quadruple hopes alive will mean additional fixtures added to the calendar, pitting City against some of the continent’s finest teams.
This, specifically, could once again evoke a long-running problem…
The European curse
The Champions League is the holy grail to City and their astonishingly wealthy owners.
Everything else has been visited and conquered, but one major trophy remains.
It is more than fair to say that Guardiola was brought to English shores by City to deliver ‘old big ears’ and place the Manchester club on a pedestal above all their peers.
Given the recent success of City under the Spanish manager, it appears quite astounding that a Champions League final has not yet been reached.
Worse still, under Guardiola City are yet to reach the semis.
The Champions League is the one trophy which has always evaded City’s advances
Last season’s elimination at the hands of Lyon was humiliating for the Premier League giants, who always appear to have a mental block when it comes to Europe.
In the two seasons prior City have exited at the hands of English foe – Tottenham and Liverpool respectively – adding further salt to the wound.
Now, patience is wearing thin. Guardiola faced similar criticism when he was unable to win the European cup with Bayern Munich, despite hoovering up every other piece of silverware during his time in Germany.
He is yet to win the Champions League since departing Barcelona, when a certain Lionel Messi was the driving force behind a team widely hailed as the greatest in modern football history.
Now, Guardiola and City have to prove they can do things differently.
Finishing the job against Monchengladbach should be relatively routine for the Premier League leaders, but the uncertainty beyond must be faced head on if the repeating of history is to be avoided.
This season of all seasons, with the strangest of circumstances and an absence of all features of normality, it has to be said that injury records are crucial.
City, much to their horror, found out how detrimental high profile injuries could be last season.
Losing Aymeric Laporte and having only Fernandinho to cover in central defence hugely hindered the flow and rhythm of Guardiola’s side, with City floundering as a result.
A similar sort of situation can be seen this season with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, if not on a more extreme level.
Thus far, City have managed relatively well this season with regards to injuries and the starting XI has flourished as a result.
City have gone through the campaign relatively unscathed so far when it comes to injuries
With the transformative signing of Ruben Dias, City now have an added leader at the back while ensuring a fully stocked squad.
Guardiola was taking no chances, and this was further highlighted with the £45million arrival of Nathan Ake – who happens to be one of the very few City players ruled out long term with injury.
Guardiola saw how last season became so frustratingly derailed and made a vow that it would not happen again. The City owners, as a result, backed him handsomely.
With the recent return of Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne from the treatment room, City are now fully stocked once more.
There is a lingering feeling that, should the first team squad all remain in good health for the remainder of the campaign, something truly special could happen.
Rest and rotate
Recent victory over Fulham proved that City are now in the enviable position where players can be rested and three points will still be collected.
De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez and the energetic Phil Foden each remained on the bench as Guardiola’s men downed Scott Parker’s strugglers, showing their vast strength in depth.
This was a Fulham team who only weeks earlier had convincingly defeated Liverpool at Anfield, yet Guardiola had enough within his battle-chest to make the result a formality.
This awareness of squad capability will serve Guardiola well for the remainder of the campaign.
Keeping his squad fresh, Guardiola is able to bring on high calibre players from the bench
City find themselves up against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League quarter-final, with an FA Cup semi-final arriving soon after.
Guardiola therefore is working well to establish a pattern in which his most trusted lieutenants can come in and out of the starting XI with minimal impact to overall momentum.
It is a difficult skill to hone, yet City will feel the advantage is on their side this season with almost the full squad reporting a clean bill of health.
Guardiola is keeping his squad in order ahead of April’s Carabao Cup final vs Mourinho’s Spurs
The history books
Is this even possible? It is quite a pertinent question.
The quadruple has never been done before and for good reason. It requires a level of flawlessness which operates on many different levels.
One must balance the hardships of the Premier League – widely considered world football’s most competitive division – along with the unpredictability of both domestic cups.
Added to this, the Champions League requires a different kind of high-stakes mindset against elite level sides who almost always bring a large degree of unpredictability.
City, should they pull it off, would be the first team to do so. That does not however mean that others have not come close…
Manchester United: 2008-09
Sir Alex Ferguson’s monstrous United team of ’08 struck fear into the heart of all opponents, and stormed to the Premier League title while also blazing a trail to the finals of the Champions League and the league cup.
Dizzy hysteria quickly surrounded the club, only for the relentless quest to get too much at the last hurdles.
United swept aside Tottenham in the league cup final to collect the first silverware of the season and spark quadruple speculation.
But FA Cup semi-final defeat to Everton (on penalties) saw the dream come crumbling down.
United would go on to hoist the Premier League trophy before enduring European heartbreak and losing to Guardiola’s Barcelona in the Champions League final.
After winning the league in 2008-09 Manchester United also made the European final
As Roman Ambramovich’s quest to make Chelsea the world’s greatest side started to unfold, the west London club very nearly tasted perfection in the infancy of the reign.
The ’06 season saw the Blues finish second in the Premier League, while also winning both domestic trophies.
United may have beaten them to the title, but Chelsea got revenge in the FA Cup final while also bettering Arsenal in the final two of the League Cup.
New rivalries were striking up all over English football as a result of Chelsea’s emergence, with the Blues then going on to lose to Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool once again in the latter stages of the Champions League to be denied a place in the final.
Arsene Wenger’s formidable side cast a shadow over the rest of the top flight in seizing the league title with an invincible campaign, but came unstuck in the latter stages of both cup competitions.
The Gunners were unplayable on their day, but ended up being knocked out of the FA Cup in the semi-finals by United before being eliminated from the League Cup against all odds in the semi-finals by Middlesbrough.
European affairs didn’t pan out much better, as Chelsea knocked Wenger’s men out of the competition in the quarter-final stage.
Arsene Wenger’s ‘invincibles’ had the quality to pull off the quadruple but fell at the late stages
Indeed, only one has a British team pulled off the feat, and we have to travel back to the 1966-67 season when Celtic ruled supreme.
The Glasgow side pulled off its most historic of campaigns, winning the league while also defeating Aberdeen in the Scottish FA Cup and city rivals neighbours in the league cup.
They then went on to shock the world by winning the European cup, in it’s old format, against Inter Milan in Lisbon.
Pep’s track record
So, can Guardiola now be the first manager of an English top flight team to go where no man has gone before?
Back in 2010, with Messi very much at the peak of his powers, Guardiola came close with a Barca side who won both the league and the Supercopa Espana, before going out in the round of 16 of the Copa Del Rey and reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League. They did however also win the UEFA Super Cup.
The following season though, Guardiola went one better and very nearly pulled off the sweep.
Guardiola has been seen as the most likely boss to win English football’s first quadruple, but hasn’t won the Champions League since 2011 when manager of Barcelona
His side won LaLiga, the Supercopa and the Champions League but missed out in the Copa Del Rey final to bitter rivals Real Madrid, courtesy of a solo Cristiano Ronaldo goal in extra-time.
At Bayern Munich Guardiola won three consecutive Bundesliga titles as well as two DFB Pokals, but could not deliver the Champions League silverware the club so craved.
Ultimately, Guardiola’s hard work over the past decade since he last won European football’s top trophy channels down to this season. Many would argue that, with his fully fit side, the Spaniard will never have a better chance of making the quadruple a reality.
For now, the history books remain poised.