Some people will tell you Manchester City are dead and buried already in the Premier League title race. What rubbish!
Nine-point leads are nothing to shake a stick at, but these are not ordinary times. Anyone who thinks Liverpool cannot be overhauled clearly hasn’t been paying attention to the remorseless brilliance of City in recent times. There’s plenty of reason to believe in a comeback from Pep Guardiola and his side.
Here are six ways in which City could still end the campaign with three in a row:
City have cool heads while Liverpool are playing under 30-years of pressure
Liverpool’s pursuit of the league title sags with the weight of expectation. Jurgen Klopp’s side might look relentless now, but that could easily change when the 30-year quest nears its end. Liverpool are playing under immense pressure, and should they falter – as they did last year, when a succession of draws allowed City to overhaul a seven-point gap – Guardiola’s team will surely be ruthless.City won’t collapse. They are far too good to fall further behind and, having won consecutive titles, have the experience and cool heads needed to slowly reel Liverpool in. Visions of recent near-misses, from John Stones’ clearance off the line last year to Steven Gerrard’s slip in 2014, will play on the minds of the league leaders. There is a long, long way to go.
Liverpool’s hectic December
Klopp’s team play 10 matches in 30 days between December 4 and January 2, travelling to Qatar towards the end of the calendar year and at one point juggling two matches in two continents in 24 hours. Make no mistake, this is an unbelievably gruelling schedule for a squad that’s relatively thin (in attack at least), not just physically but mentally too.
By Christmas the Liverpool players will feel as though they’ve been trapped on planes and in coaches for years. Exhaustion could easily take hold, while the need for dramatic squad rotation could seriously unsettle their tactical rhythm. Klopp doesn’t make too many changes and relies on the chemistry of his favoured 11; chopping and changing ought to lead to some dropped points.
Fixtures in early January and May run-in favour a City comeback
Even if Liverpool get through December still nine points clear, they face a difficult run in early January that could provide the knockout blow: Leicester (a), Wolves (h), Sheff Utd (h), Tottenham (a), Man Utd (h), and Wolves (a). Nothing about that six-game run starting on Boxing Day is easy, meaning Liverpool will enter February on the back of a nightmarish stretch. Surely they’ll drop five or six points here…?
Assuming the gap is fewer than nine points by the spring – with a head-to-head at the Etihad on April 4 potentially going the home side’s way - City will definitely begin to believe again. Where Man City’s final four games of the season reads Brighton (a), Bournemouth (h), Watford (a) and Norwich (h), Liverpool have Burnley (h), Arsenal (a), Chelsea (h) and Newcastle (a). Again, with all the pressure on Merseyside, that’s a worrying set of fixtures for the current leaders.
January spending can solidify Man City defence & midfield
All of the above depends on Man City improving, of course. Their current record of 25 points from 12 games puts Guardiola on course for the lowest tally of his career to date. The only way to do so is by spending big in January, primarily on a centre-back and a left-back, which the owners are very likely to sanction given fears that Guardiola will potentially not extend his contract.
Backing the manager in the transfer market would reaffirm the board’s commitment to him – and to winning at any cost. Should City buy two established defenders they have a chance to stop leaking goals on the counter, and therefore rediscover confidence in attack while being able to restore Fernandinho to midfield.
One key injury could be enough to rock Liverpool
Despite Divock Origi’s good form since his heroics against Barcelona in last season’s Champions League semi-final, Liverpool are clearly considerably weaker when one of their front three is missing. Similarly that back four will suddenly seem shaky should Virgil van Dijk be taken out of the equation, while Klopp has no direct replacement for Fabinho at the base of midfield.
City have a much deeper squad, and yet even they have dropped significant points this season through a solitary long-term injury – to Aymeric Laporte. If just one of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Van Dijk, or Fabinho was sidelined for six to eight weeks Liverpool would be considerably weakened.
Man City’s xG suggests they are a more convincing force
Finally, expected goals (xG) statistics taken from understat.com show Liverpool are significantly over-performing, and most clubs – over the course of a season – will eventually conform to the results and league position that xG figures predict.
Liverpool’s xPoints (based on xG for and xG against data from each individual game) says they have won 10 more points than expected, while City’s xPoints shows they have won three points fewer – a swing that, in the xG rankings, actually puts City on top of the table.
Obviously these statistics are only a guide, but on this occasion they do align with what the naked eye sees. Liverpool tend to squeeze through games (such as the goalkeeping error that gave them a 1-0 win against Sheff Utd) whereas Man City thrash their opponents.
With 26 matches still left to play, the fine margins in Liverpool matches will eventually lead to dropped points - giving Man City the chance to close in. It would only take one Liverpool defeat, and the lead cut to six points, for the gap to suddenly look rather small. The title race is still on.