There was a collector's item at Manchester City's training ground on the final day of the transfer window for anyone tracking the descent of modern football into complete absurdity. Manuel Pellegrini was asked, in all seriousness, whether conceding a goal at Tottenham might prompt him to bring in some new defenders.
City won 5-1 at White Hart Lane, you might recall, striking Tim Sherwood as not only a shoo-in for the title but the best team on the planet.
Pellegrini considered the question before answering with his usual mix of humour and bemusement. "Of course it was very disappointing to concede a goal, especially from a set piece," he replied. "But on the whole I was happy with the way we won the game. In the first half at Tottenham we played really well in all senses. We moved the ball very quickly, didn't give them any time and space, it was a complete performance in attacking and defending and we only scored one goal."
One had the feeling Pellegrini said that because, like José Mourinho, who brings his Chelsea side to the Etihad Stadium on Monday, he is aware that not all games need be won at a canter and supremacy expressed by just a single goal still earns the same three points.
City lost at Chelsea in October through Joe Hart's mistake in the final minute, but since Pellegrini asked them to stop giving away stupid goals they have improved to the extent where the rematch is now being billed as a title decider. "It won't be," Pellegrini said. "Apart from the fact that Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton are still in the running there will be 42 points to play for after the Chelsea game. Anything can still happen."
That is true, though one of the things that could happen, were City to beat Chelsea, is that they could use their next half dozen league games, all against teams from the bottom half of the table, to open up such a commanding lead that the title could be all but won by the time games against Manchester United and Arsenal arrive at the end of March. Even without Sergio Agüero that might be possible, since City managed well enough the last time their main attacking spearhead was out for a month, though Pellegrini prefers not to look too far ahead.
"I keep hearing we are going to score 200 goals and win all for trophies," he said. "It is my job to make certain the players don't believe all that and I am absolutely sure they don't. They know perfectly well that the only target is to beat Chelsea in the next game. We are not invincible, no team is invincible. We are in a very good moment, but the difference between a win and a loss is so slight, in every match it is possible you can lose."
The City manager knows that better than most, having been given a fright by Watford in the last round of the FA Cup, though in the league, at home, his side have managed to put 10 goals past United and Arsenal, even if the 2-1 win over Liverpool was a much closer contest. On that occasion City were assisted by an incorrect offside decision that cost Raheem Sterling a goal and, having turned up in an attacking frame of mind with strikers quick and nimble enough to cause the home defence problems, Liverpool were worth at least a point.
The Chelsea match could follow a similar pattern. It will be a surprise should it turn out to be a goal fest, though both sides will fancy their chances of scoring. While Pellegrini knows Eden Hazard and Oscar present a threat to any defence, he can produce statistics to show City have tightened up at the back.
"We made an important mistake at Chelsea and lost the game, but we have improved since then," he said. "In December we won nine games and drew one. Same in January. But in December we scored 26 and conceded 12, whereas in January we scored 32 and conceded just nine. All the statistics say we are getting better."