If nothing else, Jose Mourinho said all the right things after Manchester United’s unconvincing 1-0 victory over Bournemouth on Wednesday night ensured that Manchester City’s 11-point lead at the top of the Premier League did not stretch any further.
“If the title is over, I’ll go on holiday tomorrow, to Brazil or Los Angeles.” Mourinho said. “But I think it is over in May. We play match after match, one at a time. And I believe all the teams behind, the third, fourth, fifth, sixth are going to try the same.”
The season does not reach its halfway stage until the weekend before Christmas, so regardless of the ominous form of Pep Guardiola’s unbeaten City (who broke the record for consecutive wins with a 4-0 hammering of Swansea), all the chasing pack still have the time and games to overhaul the leaders in the second half of the campaign.
But at some point, there has to be a distinction between fantasy and reality.
Yes, even bigger leads than City’s have been surrendered — United led the Premier League by 14 points on Dec. 31, 1993, only for Blackburn Rovers to move level with them by the beginning of the following April — but this City team has just won its 15th successive league game, with 16 wins from 17 games, and is beginning to disappear over the horizon.
If the Premier League campaign was a Formula One season, the also-rans would have raised the white flag and allowed the leaders to cruise to the championship, choosing instead to use the second half of the season to make an early start on next year’s car and, perhaps, look to change the driver.
So is it time for United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham to write this season off and start planning for next year? Should they begin to strategically manage their resources and conserve their energy, maybe even rest players in league games in order to have them fit and fresh for European challenges in the spring?
Right now it is too early for the focus to shift towards the 2018-19 season, or saving players for the Champions League and Europa League, but if City’s peerless form continues through the Christmas fixture period and into the new year, the bigger picture is likely to become the priority for the rest.
United and Chelsea may be the first to drop the Premier League down the pecking order in terms of its importance. The two clubs, currently sitting second and third respectively, are just about clinging onto City’s coat-tails, but another slip would kill off their faint title hopes.
Yet they are also building a cushion ahead of Spurs, Arsenal and Liverpool (and Burnley?) in the race for Champions League qualification.
United are seven points clear of fourth, with Chelsea four points ahead of fourth-placed Spurs, and the inconsistency of Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool could see both Mourinho’s and Antonio Conte’s teams pull clear. Then they would find themselves in the strange position of being too far behind City to challenge for the title, yet also far enough ahead of the rest not to have to worry about qualifying for the Champions League.
If that proves the case, Mourinho and Conte could begin to experiment with players and formations ahead of next season with little to lose if it goes wrong.
They could rest players before big Champions League ties, maybe even hand their top stars an unofficial midseason break in order to allow them to keep pace with teams in Spain, Germany, Italy and France who all benefit from a winter shutdown.
At some point, if City’s run goes on, Premier League fixtures will become a distraction from other competitions for United and Chelsea, but the flipside of failure in the league could become a positive if it enables them to focus more sharply on the Champions League.
However, that is also a luxury City are likely to have because of their huge lead at the top of the table.
They are already in the enviable position of being able to lose three games without having to worry about conceding top spot and could have the title in the bag by April, allowing them to pay full attention to the Champions League latter stages.
Doing that may make City vulnerable to a league defeat, thereby ending hopes of emulating Arsenal’s unbeaten “Invincibles” of 2003-04, but nobody at the Etihad will care if losing a Premier League game helps them win the Champions League.
Certainly, because of the massive gap at the top, the second half of this season promises to be different to any other. It will not be a typical title race, but one which sees clubs focus on different priorities, both this season and beyond.
Mourinho may still publicly insist that the title race will not be decided until May, but he has won enough of them to know which way the wind is blowing. It is simply a matter of time before the chasing pack abandon their dwindling hopes and focus on something else.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_