ARE we witnessing the beginning of the end for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City?
After back-to-back defeats without a goal scored — and with no signings in the January transfer window, despite severe defensive shortcomings — there is a sense of drift about the fallen Premier League champions.
Whatever Guardiola said at the weekend, his Etihad reign will not be judged a failure if he cannot land the Champions League.
His team won back-to-back titles in eyeball-pleasing style, with an unprecedented domestic clean sweep last season.
And they will make it six domestic trophies out of the last seven if they defeat Aston Villa to defend the Carabao Cup on March 1.
Guardiola has been the most influential, civilising import into English football since Arsene Wenger two decades earlier.
Yet to hear the tetchy City boss grunting his way through post-match media duties after Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at Tottenham was to wonder whether his race has been run here. City are 22 points behind runaway leaders Liverpool.
And if they are to bridge that gap next season, their squad will need a major summer overhaul — four new defenders and something extra in central midfield at the very least.
Does Guardiola, however brilliant his mind, have the energy, drive and long-term vision to rip it up and start again at City?
At the end of this, his fourth season, Guardiola will have been at the Etihad for as long as he was in charge at Barcelona and for a year longer than his Bayern Munich reign.
This intense workaholic has suffered from a burn-out in the past and his public demeanour suggests he may soon be due a break.
Guardiola, 49, has one further season on his City contract, and may well honour it — in part, due to his loyalty towards old friend Txiki Begiristain, the club’s director of football.
But it is currently difficult to imagine him extending his stay in Manchester beyond 2021.
With the title gone and a top-four finish assured, the main priority for the rest of this campaign is clearly the Champions League.
But the widespread idea that City can casually toss off their remaining league fixtures to focus on Europe is a simplistic one.
One of City’s main assets last season was the sheer bloody-minded relentlessness which kept them clear of Liverpool in the title race.
That consistency is long gone and the suggestion that out-of-form players could flick a switch and turn it on for the last-16 tie against Real Madrid is unlikely.
Raheem Sterling’s blistering early-season form has tailed off badly, while Bernardo Silva has not performed with the consistent excellence of last term.
This is not a vintage Real side, yet Zinedine Zidane’s men are top of LaLiga with just one defeat all season.
And there is much to be said for pedigree in Europe’s elite competition.
This tie will pit 13-time champions against a club which has only ever reached one semi-final.
Real are a club defined by the European Cup. City, a club which sulkily boos its anthem.
And while the modern knockout stage has an emphasis on attacking threat, can City’s defence — surprisingly threadbare given their Abu Dhabi riches — form a bedrock for a successful conquest of Europe?
Vincent Kompany’s influence on the pitch and in the dressing room, is sorely missed.
Guardiola’s right-hand man Mikel Arteta is now head coach at Arsenal, David Silva will depart this summer, Fernandinho will be 35 in May, while Sergio Aguero will be 32 this summer.
Younger blood is needed and we are still yet to see the influx of home-grown kids into the first-team picture, which City have long hoped for.
Phil Foden might make it but he needs a sustained run of starts — perhaps through the remainder of this league season.
Guardiola has been a fine influence on Foden, on Sterling, on City and on English football as a whole.
But that influence is beginning to wane. Can he recapture the magic or is he eyeing the exit?