The 2018/19 Premier League season may have only recently reached the halfway stage, but Thursday’s clash between Manchester City and Liverpool already feels like it could be decisive in determining the outcome of the title race. It is the champions against the league leaders, and a game which Pep Guardiola’s men simply cannot afford to lose if they are to scoop the championship crown for a second year on the bounce.
It has not been a good month for City, who have seen a two-point lead at the top turn into a seven-point deficit. They suffered their first defeat of the campaign at the start of December, going down 2-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge; Guardiola’s charges were the better team in the first half, but the Catalan will have been disappointed at the paucity of clear-cut chances his team created after conceding the opening goal on the stroke of the interval.
City got back on track with a 3-1 victory over Everton the following weekend, but the problems were not over. In many ways the 3-2 home loss to Crystal Palace was unfortunate: the visitors to the Etihad Stadium scored every time they had a meaningful opportunity, although there was again a lack of creation when City were chasing the game in the final 35 minutes. Things got even worse on Boxing Day, as Leicester City came from behind to beat Guardiola’s men 2-1 at the King Power Stadium, a result which put Liverpool in firm control of the title tussle.
The absences of Fernandinho, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero at various points in the last month clearly harmed City’s prospects of keeping up with Liverpool, who have been comparatively free from injuries thus far. Regardless, City have shown signs of vulnerability which had not been present since Guardiola’s debut campaign at the helm, and they have now left themselves very little margin for error as they attempt to reel in the Reds – starting with Thursday’s decisive head-to-head showdown in Manchester.
“In the position of Liverpool, we drop points, it’s over,” Guardiola said after watching his side’s success at Southampton. “It’s finished. It would be almost impossible. Of course I think they’re going to drop points, but not too many. If we want to be there as far as possible until the end, we have to win games.
"The problem is the other team is fantastic. Maybe the best team in Europe or the world right now and in top form. You have to accept it. When Liverpool is seven points in front it’s because they don’t lose a game, they don’t concede, they start in incredible form, top players, all together four or five years with Jurgen.
“We are not here to send messages to Liverpool. Liverpool know what they have to do and we know what we have to do. It’s first against second next Thursday. I know the distance is big – seven points – especially because they are so solid and consistent. But it’s a game at home and hopefully the extra help from our people at the Etihad can come.”
City simply cannot afford to lose to Klopp’s league leaders, who will take a giant step closer to their first league title since 1990 if they can emerge victorious on Thursday night.