After 15 matches of the Premier League season, the leaders have a two-point lead. Last season at this stage, Manchester City had an eight-point cushion. In 2016/17, the gap at the top was three points. In fact, the last time the Premier League leaders had a smaller points gap to second at this stage of the season was in December 2008. By those standards, we have the makings of a titanic title tussle.
And yet this Premier League title race already has a strong feeling of inevitability. Pep Guardiola’s team are as short as 1/6 to lift the trophy in May, evidence that bookmakers at least believe that the next six months will provide very little intrigue. This season may not allow City to stroll towards triumph with quite as much ease, but hopes of a title race may be dashed.
There are valid reasons to have total faith in City and Guardiola. They may only have a two-point lead, but City have been the highest-performing team in the league by some distance. Their goal difference is 14 better than any other team. They lead the way by some distance in goals and chances created, and only one team have kept more clean sheets.
As significant as how City have played is who they have played against. Guardiola has taken his team to Wembley, Anfield and the Emirates and avoided conceding a goal at any of those three stadia. Even without Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, Aymeric Laporte and Kevin de Bruyne, four of their most important outfield players, they brushed aside Watford on Tuesday evening.
We are certainly not looking at a title race that will involve more than two clubs. Arsenal have improved dramatically under Unai Emery and Tottenham remain in the picture under the overachieving Mauricio Pochettino, but both will surely consider a top-four finish as significant success. Manchester United are entirely out of kilter, while Maurizio Sarri will surely take longer than a single season to challenge at the very top. Sarri has a midfield conundrum to perfect, defensive issues to solve and a woefully out-of-form striker.
Still, two points. Liverpool may not have been at their best in 2018/19, but they have virtually kept pace with Manchester City. There are two ways to assess their performance level. Keep playing like this and they will be found out, or improve to fulfill their attacking potential and see results improve even further. The old adage about winning whilst playing badly rings true.
Guardiola is not the type of personality to spend long fretting over Liverpool’s form. If City continue to play at their current level, he will expect them to pull clear of the pack. But Guardiola might be slightly surprised by Liverpool’s new-found defensive solidity and ability to grind out victories. Jurgen Klopp’s side are the first team other than City to remain unbeaten at this stage of the season since 2010.
But the assumption that City’s form will merrily continue at current pace is hardly guaranteed. They have coped without key players during stages of this season, but Guardiola made no secret of his desire to sign a central midfielder in the summer and Fernandinho’s continued form and fitness is vital. Had it gone Guardiola’s way, he would be facing Chelsea with Jorginho at the base of his midfield, not working on a plan to frustrate him.
It is also impossible to ignore the looming presence of the Champions League knockout stages, a competition in which Guardiola has so far underachieved at City. Get to the quarter-finals again, and Guardiola will be expected to prioritise Europe. Sheikh Mansour’s dream is of continental dominance alongside domestic success. If Liverpool are eliminated from the group stages, his side will have a far lower midweek workload than City.
On Saturday, City face a further test of their title credentials. Chelsea have not lost at home since April, when Antonio Conte was in the middle of a messy exit strategy.
Win at Stamford Bridge, and another significant hurdle will have been jumped with some comfort. They will have played four of the likely top six away from home and dropped only two points. It was at this time of last season that thoughts turned to invincible seasons.
City will start the game as odd-on favourites, as they do almost every fixture these days. Guardiola will have noted how Everton and Tottenham were able to strangle Jorginho in possession and block his passing lanes. In doing so, both sides created a space between midfield and attack that was exploited. Fernandinho winning possession and instantly feeding David Silva sounds particularly dangerous.
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But in Pedro and Eden Hazard, in combination with Olivier Giroud, Chelsea do have the tools to trouble City. If Kyle Walker is caught up the pitch, John Stones could be dragged out of position and allow for the late runs from midfield that can hurt City. N’Golo Kante’s more advanced role could lead to him man-making Fernandinho and looking to force turnovers high up the pitch. It may be clutching at straws, but Guardiola’s team have conceded in four of their last five games.
Victory in this same fixture at the end of September 2017 marked City out as the real deal. Chelsea had done the double over Guardiola the previous season, City’s last five away matches in all competitions had produced four defeats and a draw and they had also lost away at Leicester City and Everton in the same timeframe. It may seem a distant memory now, but Guardiola’s City used to be vulnerable in the biggest matches. Beating champions Chelsea proved their mettle.
But lose, and momentum can quickly be lost. If Manchester City’s wonderful start to 2018/19 would normally have given them margin for error, Liverpool’s own form has reduced those margins more than City could have imagined. The power of perception may already have crowned this magnificent team as champions once again, but Guardiola know that a single misstep can change the mood. Despite their dominance, City may not top the Premier League table come tonight.