“Seven points is a lot” were the disheartened words of Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva on Boxing Day.
It was a forthright assessment of the Citizens’ Premier League table situation, which many observers were quick to endorse.
Prior to Silva’s downcast admission, the runaway champions of yesteryear had found themselves humbled in two consecutive games over the festive period.
Both Roy Hodgson and Claude Puel had outwitted Pep Guardiola, and now talk of a title retention was fading fast.
At the same time, Liverpool were soldiering on remorselessly. Newcastle and Bournemouth were swatted aside, both on the wrong end of 4-0 crushings.
Yet to lose a match and yet to be truly tested, the Reds had opened up those seemingly unassailable seven points of daylight at the top of the table with an admirable economy of effort.
Once more, it looked as if the title race had been won and lost in the winter. Heavy is the head that wears the Premier League crown, and Manchester City were finding that out the hard way.
But after such a stack of recent sedate title processions, the Premier League soap opera was due a shock twist.
And so it was that as 2018 ticked over into 2019, the wheels were to fall off the Liverpool juggernaut very quickly indeed.
Without a league title in 29 years, Jurgen Klopp’s side were never going to be naturally suited to playing the hare in a league title race.
Better mentally equipped for chasing down leaders, they were spooked to be at the head of affairs so early.
In truth, though there had always been the anticipation of a strong campaign, few predicted that Liverpool would ease themselves into quite such an advantageous position by the time the New Year bells tolled.
Manchester City, unwilling to give up hope, made the most of their opportunity to slash the deficit to four points when the two contenders met at the Etihad in January.
Though Sky are often guilty as charged in their brazen overhyping of fixtures, on this occasion they may have been spot on in their assessment of the clash as a ‘title decider’.
Having lost 2-1 to City, Liverpool’s only consolation was their remaining marginal advantage when it came to the league table.
But the ignominy of losing their unbeaten streak was to haunt them in the games to come. Jurgen Klopp found it increasingly difficult to hide his despair as the number of points dropped by his side began to tot up.
As City tapped into their richest vein of form just as their must-win fixtures asked for it (putting six past Chelsea without reply and easily snuffing out Arsenal), Liverpool began to flounder in key games against their most bitter rivals of all.
The Reds recorded drab 0-0s against injury-ravaged Manchester United and resolute Everton, swinging the pendulum back in City’s favour- albeit by a solitary point.
Despite a list of excuses which could fill an Argos catalogue (high winds, another team’s injuries, and wet weather being three of the most fanciful reasons given for the Reds’ slump), Jurgen Klopp is failing to convince anyone that his side are not flagging under pressure.
The gales of Storm Freya aside, he would be better off laying the blame with his – whisper it quietly- misfiring front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
Having been so devastatingly effective for so long, their powers are flickering at the most inopportune time of all.
The Reds desperately need this trio to get back into top gear if they are to fight for the title until the very end.
At City, the mood could not be more contrasting from two months ago. Talk now centres around the chances of a historic quadruple.
By hook or by crook, it is clear to all that City are turning the screw on Liverpool, and though the Citizens’ performances are still an assortment of breathless victories and decidedly dodgy ones, the bookmakers have pivoted back in their favour.
Liverpool are down but by no means out. Indeed, Klopp believes that his side may find it easier to chase their rivals than to be setting the pace.
But as push comes to shove with nine games left to play in the league season, it appears that no less than a clean sweep of wins may be required to stay on terms with Manchester City.
TOP FOUR TUSSLE
Meanwhile, the mother of all tussles is on in earnest below the Big Two to land all-important Champions League qualification.
With City and Liverpool settling down to decide the Premier League between them, the remainder of the top six are scrambling to secure their European status for the next campaign.
Tottenham have been flat to the boards since opening day, and although they have at times threatened to arrive on the premises in the title race, they now find themselves playing for places once more.
At times they have looked just as brilliant as Liverpool and City, particularly in the autumn, when registering their best ever start to a Premier League season.
But a transfer spend below that of Macclesfield, managerial uncertainty and absent big-hitters have put paid to Spurs’ hopes of glory for another year.
The most optimistic of Tottenham supporters can still take odds on Mauricio Pochettino’s men to win the title at 250/1. The rest will be left disconsolately to pray that it will be 58th time lucky for them in 2020.
As recently as a fortnight ago, a place in the top four for Spurs seemed to be as safe as houses, but now defeats to Burnley, Chelsea, and Southampton have put them in the firing line.
Tottenham’s punishing run-in includes clashes with Manchester City and Liverpool, and although Spurs should still find enough points in their final nine games to finish in the leading quartet, the chasing pack are most certainly snapping at their heels.
Elsewhere in North London, Unai Emery has worked a minor miracle to revivify Arsenal back from the glowing embers of a once-great side.
Shrewd signings (Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi have both well exceeded expectations) and a strong tactical identity have put Arsenal back on the map as a force in English football after years of stagnation and farce under Arsene Wenger.
Torreira and Guendouzi’s midfield influence, coupled with the attacking dynamism of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, have given the Gunners a fighting chance of regaining their recent spiritual home in the Premier League table- fourth place.
Manchester United, having given the rest of the top six a half-season head-start courtesy of Jose Mourinho’s disastrous final weeks at Old Trafford, now have the welcome opportunity to salvage something from their botched campaign.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s transformation of United’s motley playing crew from laughing-stock to winning machine can only beg the question of what this season might have yielded for the Red Devils.
By not dispensing of Mourinho’s services sooner, United Chief Executive Ed Woodward may well have inadvertently surrendered a chance to see his team take an active role in the title race.
As it is, United must settle for the top four battle this year. But with their unbeaten streak now stretching to twelve games and a serious injury crisis seemingly abating, few would expect anything less than a strong finish from Solskjaer’s revitalised charges.
Rounding out the leading half-dozen at this stage are Chelsea, who have just about weathered a storm of troubles to keep in contention for a Champions League spot.
Though manager Maurizio Sarri has encountered more problems than the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, a flying start to the season has allowed them to bank enough points early on to stand a sporting chance of returning to Europe’s top competition.
With player insubordination, erratic performances and questionable tactics reportedly putting Sarri’s job at risk, he is the manager who needs to secure a top four place most desperately.
Rumours surrounding wantaway Eden Hazard’s probable departure to Real Madrid continue to swirl, along with tabloid tales of the regularly unhappy Chelsea camp being plunged into strife yet again.
But a recent morale-boosting win over Tottenham will have given the Blues belief that they can end the season on a high- even if the campaign proves to be Hazard’s Chelsea swansong.
As Barcelona stroll to their fourth La Liga title in five years, PSG pummel all comers in Ligue 1, and Juventus open up a 17-point lead at the top of Serie A, only the Premier League offers true excitement and intrigue this near to the season’s conclusion.
England’s big six still all have plenty to play for. The race is on.
NERVE SPORT’S FOOTBALL WRITERS PREDICT THE TOP FOUR
Dan Davis (Editor): 1st: Man City 2nd: Liverpool 3rd: Tottenham 4th: Arsenal
“I feel that the title race is destined to go down to the wire, potentially even to the final day of the season. But judging on current form, I feel City will edge past Liverpool to lift the trophy come May – an agonising outcome for Jurgen Klopp’s men considering they are on course for their record points haul in the top flight.
“Tottenham will secure third spot in the coming weeks too, whilst Arsenal will emerge victorious in the battle for fourth spot with Manchester United and Chelsea. I feel the Gunners face a slightly easier fixture run-in and possess a formidable strike force, whilst injuries have crippled United’s ranks and dented their European aspirations. The insecurity over Maurizio Sarri’s position will result in the Blues missing out, and the Italian stepping away from Stamford Bridge this summer.”
Ross Millen (Deputy Editor): 1st: Man City 2nd: Liverpool 3rd: Man United 4th: Tottenham
“I think after Liverpool’s recent dip in form and consecutive goalless draws, they’ve given City the baton. Spurs have always had fluctuating form and with Man United doing so well under Ole, I think they could overturn the three-point gap between third and fourth.”
Akshay Kulkarni (Online Editor): 1st: Man City 2nd: Liverpool 3rd: Tottenham 4th: Man United
“This season is a rare occurrence in the Premier League, in that both the title race and the race for the Top Four are exciting – it has either been one or the other for the last few years.
“I think City have the experience and knowledge to pip Liverpool to the title. As for the other two spots – Tottenham need to finish the season strongly, and the return of their stars from injury will help them do that, according to me. And I think United under Solskjaer will fill out the rest of the Top Four, because Arsenal and Chelsea are still a little too inconsistent going into the final weeks of the season, in contrast to United. Certainly a far cry from Mourinho.”
Toby Foster (Football Writer): 1st: Liverpool 2nd: Man City 3rd: Arsenal 4th: Man United
“I predicted that Liverpool would win the league at the start of the season and I’m sticking with that. They have a nice run of fixtures and no distractions in the form of other competitions. I think exhaustion will take its toll on Manchester City, who are still fighting on three fronts with the Champions League and FA Cup in their sights.
“Spurs have their hardest games of the season still ahead of them, whilst Arsenal and Manchester United are in flying form and have got back into the habit of winning. As a result, and as harsh as it seems given how good they have been this season, I believe it will be Tottenham who just miss out.”
Jonathan Nagioff (Magazine Sports Editor): 1st: Man City 2nd: Liverpool 3rd: Tottenham 4th: Man United
“I think Man City will win this league on goal difference. I predict that both Man City and Liverpool will finish on 93 points, but Man City’s superior goal difference will prove pivotal. In the race for the Top Four, despite Arsenal’s favourable fixture list I expect Tottenham to finish third, whilst Man United will pip Arsenal to fourth. Chelsea won’t be far behind the others but I expect them to drop points towards the latter end of the season and finish sixth. As an Arsenal fan, I hope I’m wrong about the Top Four standings!”
Sam Greasley-Machin (Football Writer & Radio Commentator) 1st: Man City 2nd: Liverpool 3rd: Man United 4th: Tottenham
“Liverpool have a reputation of bottling silverware in recent times and that is precisely what is happening this season. Despite having at one stage a ten-point lead over Manchester City, they now sit behind them in the table and it is hard to see that changing, although the Manchester Derby could be a stumbling block. While it might be a slim advantage, City have a squad that knows how to win the league, in addition to the fact that the Citizens have the superior squad depth.
“One injury to a key Liverpool player would almost certainly end their hopes, but the same cannot be said for City- where Pep Guardiola has the likes of Sane, Jesus, Mahrez and Kompany, Jurgen Klopp only has the likes of Sturridge, Origi, Shaqiri and Lovren, who wouldn’t look out of place at a bottom-half side.
“As for third and fourth, based on form it’s hard to see the Top Four teams changing. However, recent injuries to Manchester United and the Champions League for both could be a real decider, with neither side having an abundance of squad depth.”
Frankie Rudland (Football Writer & Radio Commentator) 1st: Man City 2nd: Liverpool 3rd: Tottenham 4th: Man United
“While Liverpool have tightened up their previously leaky defence, they have looked occasionally bereft of ideas going forward, racking up five more draws than chief rivals Man City. Unfortunately, Origi just doesn’t match up to the calibre of player that Pep Guardiola has at his disposal to rotate and in a long season that will ultimately be telling.”
Ross Mondon (Football Writer): 1st: Liverpool 2nd: Man City 3rd: Spurs 4th: Arsenal
“The way Liverpool are playing, I still think they can win it, even if it goes to the last day of the Premier League season”.
Carlo Simone (Football Writer & ‘Matchday Takeaway’ Presenter): 1st: Man City 2nd: Liverpool 3rd: Tottenham 4th: Man United
“Whilst Liverpool have a relatively easier run-in than Manchester City, as they play six of the current bottom seven, I don’t think they’ll be table to capitalise on any potential slip-ups from Pep Guardiola’s side. Meanwhile, Manchester United’s good form should see them keep a grip on fourth spot, but won’t be quite enough to unseat Tottenham in third.”
Written by Toby Foster (@tobyfost)