Man City must beat Liverpool to breathe life into the title race?
Background image: Ed Higgins, CC BY 3.0
The Premier League title race reaches a critical stage tonight. And that's nothing strange. Most times, league leaders at this point go on to lift the title at season's end. Only Liverpool has failed to do so in the Premier League era. In hindsight, it's now clear Manchester City already owned the 2017/18 league title by January. With more than a ten-point gap atop the table, no other side could catch up.
Topping the table with six points already, a win at the Etihad Stadium against reigning champions Manchester City will establish a healthy nine-point lead for Liverpool who conflictingly own more First Division crowns than anyone save Manchester United but none in the Premier League. It's not exaggerating to say the entire season hinges on tonight's match. The Merseysider's unbeaten status and the psychological comfort it provides are also at stake.
With 17 wins and three draws in 20 games, Jurgen Klopp is doing the improbable. After dominating last season, many expected Manchester City to continue this term. But the Sky Blues collapsed in December, suffering three losses including back-to-back defeats against Crystal Palace and Leicester City.
Meanwhile, Klopp's men have been unstoppable despite the fixture congestion. The Reds have played with class and finesse, dispatching opponents with relative ease. The team looks every bit a side ready to conquer the Premier League. But the current six-point lead at the top of the table is by no means unassailable.
Tottenham, albeit inconsistent, is proving to be a title contender. The goal margin by which the team has won recent games displays the ruthlessness necessary to fight for the title. Chelsea has not been that ruthless but the Stamford Bridge outfit can grind out results when necessary to stay in the race.
Inflicting a first defeat on Pep Guardiola's men was a loud statement. The Blues are currently 10 points behind Liverpool. With the season just past the halfway mark, there is still time to <cough> bridge the gap.
City's immediate task is ensuring the gap doesn't grow. Beating the runaway league leaders opens the title race but a draw at least preserves it.
Any points taken damage the invincible aura surrounding the Kop. Questions will be asked, pressure felt.
After waiting 28 long years to win their next league crown, the Merseysiders can literally touch it now. They've been close before. Several capitulations have occurred, the most recent in 2013/14 when City overtook them in the final weeks. When the bottom's fallen out in the past, any setback creates tension.
The squad's strength this time around, bolstered by inconsistent rivals and luck, encourage belief this is finally the year. Events like the last minute penalty miss by Riyad Mahrez that prevented the Reds' first defeat, Xherdan Shaqiri's two deflected goals that provoked Jose Mourinho's early checkout from the Lowry Hotel and a freak 96th-minute goal to beat Everton in the Merseyside derby are the good fortune any champion must have. Klopp will tell you as much.
But that is not the real reason Liverpool top the table. Simply put, the Reds are the league's best team by a Lancashire mile. In terms of goals scored, clean sheets, wins and points accrued, no other team comes close. A win against Man City will not only extend the gap, it will increase the belief and determination needed to finish the job.
If Man City cannot stop Liverpool, it's difficult to see who else can. City must beat Klopp's men to stand a realistic chance of retaining their league title. In fact, beating Liverpool is necessary to throw the title race wide open.