THIS is how it is going to be for Manchester City from now on. There will be the occasional flourishes as weaker opponents are eviscerated and the goals rattle in but, away from the Etihad Stadium especially, victories will be hard won, if won at all.
Yesterday at The Hawthorns, City drew a blank for the first time in this previously free-scoring season, their stellar cast of strikers unable to penetrate a supremely drilled and dedicated West Bromwich Albion defence. Roberto Mancini's team remain top of the Premier League, but now only by goal difference from their neighbours.
"I said to the guys before the game, if we don't score quickly it will be difficult because they will stay with many people behind the ball," Mancini said.
"We had a chance. If we score then the game changes, but it is impossible to score three or four goals for 38 games, it is impossible always to win, impossible to be top all season."
City will probably lose the lead before the year is out as United play at home to Blackburn on New Year's Eve while City must wait for 2012 before travelling to Sunderland.
Mancini thought it two points dropped but Roy Hodgson was on surer ground when he said this was a point Albion deserved.
"We knew we would have to be at our best, work hard, and keep our shape and discipline. We did that," he said.
Hodgson's players were in on Christmas Day but the hard work was done on Christmas Eve when he drilled his players for two hours. That was merely fine-tuning after a year's diligent work on the training ground since his arrival.
Albion now play the way his Fulham team did when they reached the Europa League final. When the opposition have possession they present two banks of four, who shuffle sideways as if on the invisible bars of a table football game. There is rarely 10 metres between each man and there was no space between the lines for David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri, nor in behind for Mario Balotelli.
City had plenty of the ball, but not in areas where they could hurt Albion. Once they pinched the ball, Albion, if the ball was on, looked to use the selfless running into channels of Shane Long.
It was so effective that Ben Foster barely had a save to make in the match. Only twice did City threaten but Silva missed badly after 25 minutes.
Two minutes later, Billy Jones, making the most of a rare start, made a smart tackle on Aguero.
Albion were more expansive in the second period and Long should have scored when Jerome Thomas's cross presented him with a free header after 57 minutes. A few minutes earlier, however, Balotelli had skimmed the bar from 30 yards out.
That was a rare flash of magic from City's strikers and Balotelli spent most of the match brooding ominously, though Mancini was pleased he maintained his composure.
"I don't think it was a bad performance - we had chances to score but didn't have the killer instinct," City captain Vincent Kompany said.
Mancini was less sure. "We need to move the ball quicker."
He then bemoaned the fixture scheduling prior to City's meeting with Liverpool on January 3.
"I'm disappointed we play Jan 1 (vs Sunderland away) and Liverpool play 30th December (home to Newcastle).
"For Liverpool to have an extra two days (to recover) is not correct. It will make a difference. I don't know why this is - well I do, it's for TV."
Indeed. Clubs cannot have it both ways and such are City's resources they should be able to cope.