January 3. Mark it in your diary. It could be the day that the title could be decided as Man City host Liverpool in the Premier League.
It could be crazy to suggest, but Pep Guardiola may well have actually welcomed the away defeat to Chelsea a few weeks back. With all the early-season talk and murmur of Manchester City, with their bottomless quality, possibly taking another stroll to the title without losing a single league game, the excitable and endlessly humble Spaniard perhaps saw this as the result that would guillotine the topic of an unbeaten season and let Guardiola get on with his business.
Is it too mad to suggest that Saturday afternoon’s shock home defeat to Crystal Palace will also have allowed the City boss to raise his hands in a “you see?” gesture, aimed primarily at those in the media who dumped endless praise on this team, suggesting too easily that this team had what it took to avoid a league defeat for an entire campaign.
Guardiola never underestimates the quality of his players. But neither does he accommodate compliments and pre-conceived notions of his side that he feels are as yet unproven. It was clear the talk of a possible unbeaten season made him uncomfortable, made him agitated.
“I was asked yesterday in the press conference [about winning the league unbeaten], and I said ‘that is not going to happen’
“We are not here to be Invincible, we are here to try to be champions.”
Guardiola was surprisingly calm following the 2-0 defeat to Chelsea on December 8, and his post-match comments certainly had the air of someone who was more concerned with using their mistake to prove a point rather than make excuses for it.
With Palace coming to the Etihad on Saturday and putting on arguably their best performance of the season to come away as 3-2 victors, it leaves Man City four points behind leaders Liverpool, who with each week look more like they might have what it takes to give City and Guardiola a real test this season.
Liverpool. That team whose number one goalkeeper for most of last season was Loris Karius. That side who in the same season played arguably the most exciting football in England, and yet finished twenty-five points behind eventual and inevitable champions Man City.
But out went Karius – his shocker of a performance in the Champions League final in Kiev making his departure a formality – and in came Roma keeper Allison Becker. Along with the January signing of Virgil Van Dijk and the sudden re-emergence of the excellent Joe Gomez, Jurgen Klopp’s side have now become incredibly difficult to score against. They boast the most secure defence in the division. Just seven goals conceded in 18 games.
Man City have let in 13 in as many games. Manchester United, 30!
Liverpool have let in as many goals as Leicester City have managed league wins this season.
Jurgen Klopp refused to give a definitive answer last Friday following the victory over Wolves as to whether he considered Van Dijk to currently be the best defender in the Premier League. Were he not so humble and were he less mindful of Liverpool’s other players in that position and were he not so worried about making statements that could spin negative headlines, he no doubt would have said oh yes, yes indeed.
And he would be right, after all. Should Liverpool see this through and make it over the line to win that ever-elusive Premier League title, the Dutchman will have been a huge contributor to the achievement.
The gap between first-place Liverpool and City will be four points as we arrive into today’s Boxing Day game. Liverpool will then play Newcastle and Arsenal at home. City will be visiting Leicester and then a much-better-looking Southampton, following the arrival of Ralph Hasenhuttl.
And then the two come face to face once again. Thursday, 3rd January, Jurgen Klopp and his side will travel to Manchester to take on City, and, depending on the difference between the teams in terms of points on the day, the outcome of this match could easily give a fair indication as to who will take the title in May.