Pep Guardiolas side eventually ran out 4-1 winners over Southampton to keep their treble hopes alive, but they have not been at their best for weeks
Atletico Madrid and Liverpool at home, Atletico Madrid away, and Liverpool on neutral ground.
It is a run of games that would give every manager nightmares – even Pep Guardiola.
But that – along with a trip to Turf Moor to face Burnley – is what faces Manchester City in April when they return from the international break; fixtures that will go a long way to determining how successful their season will be.
And it is an even more frightening sequence for Guardiola when you consider that his side has lost some of its own menace at just the wrong moment in the campaign.
Self-doubt has crept in as the hunt for silverware gets serious, and Guardiola is desperate for his players to remember how good they are, and have been for the majority of the season.
“We are a decent team if we don’t forget to play,” he said after Sundays 4-1 FA Cup win over Southampton.
A home defeat to Tottenham and a goalless draw away at Crystal Palace has seen City lose their momentum in the Premier League, just as Liverpool’s has been gathering remorselessly.
The treble and the greatest season in the club’s history remains a distinct possibility, and the potential gains that could come out of that intimidating upcoming run of fixtures is something that City would normally relish.
A single point advantage at the top of the Premier League could become four with a victory over Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium.
A place in the Champions League semi-finals is eminently achievable against an Atletico side that struggled to get past Manchester United in the previous round.
And an FA Cup semi-final against Jurgen Klopp’s side at Wembley Stadium will be another thriller, with a win potentially enough to officially end the Reds quadruple dreams.
The negatives, though, are that Citys season could unravel quickly if the current pattern of unconvincing performances continues.
At Palace on Monday, they played well without scoring. Against Southampton, they scored without playing well until the game was largely over.
Phil Foden’s fabulous thunderbolt for the third goal killed the tie, but moments earlier, Zack Steffen had made a huge save from Che Adams to deny the Saints a second equaliser that would have set up a thrilling finale.
“At Crystal Palace, we missed chances in the six-yard box,” Guardiola said. “My players don’t always understand why these things happen, but it’s just football. Then they come here and see the opposite side.
“Just relax and improve – we have been together for six seasons and have been many times in the FA Cup semi-final.”
The edginess was clear in the performance against Southampton.
Raheem Sterling scored the opening goal, but snatched at other good opportunities, Jack Grealish lost his confidence in the final third, Steffen was slow off his line and Aymeric Laporte stabbed at Che Adams’ cross to put the ball into his own net for the Saints equaliser.
But the pretty passes and thrilling football were back when the game was over, as they cut open their hosts for a superb fourth goal when Joao Cancelo’s outrageous pass with the outside of his foot picked out Ilkay Gundogan, who in turn teed up Riyad Mahrez to provide the finish.
Magical Mahrez ????The top scorer remaining in the competition delivers [email protected] @ManCity #EmiratesFACup pic.twitter.com/kEyPru2CPP
Starting games with that belief will be crucial going forward, and ensuring it happens will be a test of Guardiolas man-mangement skills.
So often the spring international break can be a momentum-breaker, but a two-week distraction could be just what the Catalan needs to settle his players.
As they head off to different part of the world, the City boss will also take a break, but the punishing schedule will not be too far from his thoughts.
“We won’t see each other for a while,” he said. “We’ll see some new faces and after we come back, we know what we have – quarter-final of Champions League, last games of the Premier League and semi-final of the FA Cup.
“Arriving in the last stages of the season, we are there, fighting for the titles, and that is so nice.
“I would have signed, at the beginning of the season, for today to be in this position. After, we will see what happens.
“How many times has the treble happened? Once. I would love to tell you, but it’s not easy – it’s better to think about praying that the players come back from the national team fit, because we have to fight, fight, fight for many, many things.”