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Lure of invincibility

Victor Mather New York Times New Service Dec 16 2017, 22:52 IST

In top flight English League, only two teams have managed to stay unbeaten all season

Reuters photo

Reuters photo

Manchester City are not just off to the best start in Premier League history; their record as they near the halfway point of the schedule is also among the best in the history of England's top division. Through 17 games, City already have an 11-point lead at the top of the standings. They have scored 52 goals and have conceded only 11. Their record is imposing: 16 wins, 1 draw and - perhaps most important of all - zero losses.

With an improved defence and fearsome attackers like Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne at the team's disposal, fans, players and the news media are thinking not just about the title, which seems assured even before Christmas, but about something bigger: an undefeated season.

The English have a name for a team like this: Invincibles.

The term dates to the very first season of the Football League, English soccer's original top league, in 1888-89. Preston North End, a team based in Lancashire, roared through the league season with a record of 18-0-4 to become the original Invincibles. To top off that season, Preston won the FA Cup, too.

John Goodall (20 league goals), who also played top-level cricket, and the Little Demon, Jimmy Ross (19), led the way alongside their sharply mustachioed teammates. Preston's innovative 2-3-5 formation, though bizarre to today's eyes, soon became the league standard.

Preston would repeat as league champions a year later, but the club have not won the title since. (They currently plays in the Championship, the English game's second tier.) But if followers of the nascent league believed that an unbeaten season would be a regular thing, they were wrong.

There were good teams and great teams over the years, but all of them lost at least once in league play. In fact, English soccer went through the entire 20th century without another invincible team in the top division.

Then in 2003-04, the term Invincibles returned to the headlines when Arsenal, with striker Thierry Henry pouring in 30 goals, matched Preston's feat. And they did so playing 38 league games, rather than Preston's 22.

On the other hand, Arsenal couldn't match Preston's league-cup double. They were knocked out in the semifinals of their two domestic Cups and in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. (City have lost this season, in a Champions League match to Shakhtar Donetsk, although it came after the team had clinched advancement to the knockout stages. City are unbeaten so far in the domestic cups.)

Arsenal's 2003-04 team had 12 draws, making their record far from perfect; indeed, Chelsea surpassed Arsenal's point total each of the next two seasons. But those Chelsea teams sustained losses in the league, so while statistically they stack up better than Arsenal's champions, no one ever calls them Invincible.

The achievement is not unique to England. Celtic did it just last season in Scotland, and added both domestic cups. AC Milan failed to lose in Serie A in 1991-92, a season in which they surrendered only 21 goals in 34 games with a lockbox defence featuring Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta.

But in the English top flight, there are still just the two Invincibles. For City to join them this season, they must negotiate a schedule that includes some very difficult games. In the new year, they still have home games against Chelsea and Manchester United, and trips to Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs. And they must not lose focus even as they balance those fixtures with games in their chase for a bigger Continental goal: victory in the UEFA Champions League.

After five games this season, bookmakers were already setting a line on an undefeated season for City: typically about 40-1.

Coach Pep Guardiola has tried to cold-water the chance at an undefeated season.

"We are not going to break it," he told reporters recently, though he quickly added, "To stay unbeaten in the Premier League is something fantastic."

But that was in early November. And as the wins have continued to mount - 15 in a row after last Wednesday's 4-0 rout of Swansea City - and as the perfect season inches closer, Guardiola and Manchester City will not be able to avoid thinking about their chance at immortality, and invincibility.

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