A lot can change in a month. And if that month is December, quite a lot can change in the Premier League. Stories take twists, outlooks change, and assumptions become absurd, as teams navigate a period that entails – as it did this season – seven games. At the start of December, Manchester City were top of the Premier League, taking out all before them, even when not at peak level. Liverpool were only two points behind, but it only seemed a matter of time before the champions pulled away, they looked very much a cut above the rest, as embodied when midfielder Ilkay Gundogan spoke, after the win over Bournemouth at the start of the month, of the fact that City were quite glad they faced a challenge in that game.
Well, 31 days and six more league games later, City have faced quite the challenges. A week after that Bournemouth win, they suffered their first league defeat of the season at Chelsea. That seemed like one of those days, one of those things that could happen, but 17 days after that, they suffered their third league loss at Leicester. Yes, third. With a setback at home to Crystal Palace coming either side of those Chelsea and Leicester defeats, the impenetrable armour has shown more than a few chinks, the unstoppable force has been well and truly halted, and the seeming procession towards retaining the title has become an undisputed fight.
Especially because, in that time that City have faltered, Liverpool haven’t stopped, not even to believe their luck, rather the Reds have just ruthlessly rolled on. Every game in December has ended in victory for Jurgen Klopp’s side, in fact, they’ve won every league game since a 1-1 draw at Arsenal in November, and the Gunners were the latest to be on the end of a Liverpool win, the Reds running out 5-1 winners without ever really having to break sweat.
Everything looks in place for Liverpool this time, their primary strength over the years, particularly under Klopp, has been their attack, but this season it’s undeniably their defence, which has conceded only eight times this term, that’s one less than Man City have conceded in their past five games.
There is a new-found sense of balance in the Liverpool side, no longer do they look a top-heavy team with enough frailty at the back to undermine their firepower up front, the Reds look a more rounded side more than capable of navigating issues at both ends of the pitch, thanks in no small part to the additions of defender Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson Becker.
They are still unbeaten in the league this season, and hold a seven-point lead going into the New Year, which, for them, begins, interestingly enough, with a trip to the Etihad to face City. City’s manager Pep Guardiola has already hinted at this game being a must-win for the champions if they plan to retain the title, and while that might seem like a bit of mind games, it’s hard to see where Liverpool will drop points from, and City failing to beat the leaders seems like an almost unassailable advantage for the Reds.
This means the onus is on City to attack at Eastlands on Thursday, a strategy which may play into Liverpool’s hands. There’s little pressure on Liverpool to win this game, retaining their advantage is perhaps primary, but it certainly wouldn’t be such an ill-advised move to set up to attack away to the champions. City have looked flawed in defence of late, failing to keep a clean sheet in 11 successive games in all competitions, with the opposition seemingly scoring with their first shots on target. Hence, going out to attack City is nowhere near the worst idea in the world. A win for Liverpool over City would also open up a ten-point gap with them and the champions (with Tottenham in second place), not to talk of sending a statement to the rest of the league that they are the ones who now look a cut above.
There’ll still be a long way to go, no matter what happens in Manchester, a matter of 17 more obstacles after Thursday’s, and tests will come for Liverpool, trips to Old Trafford and Goodison Park, as well as visits of Tottenham and Chelsea await, not to mention how they would react and pick themselves up should that first defeat ever come. But this looks like a chance to pull away.
Like City last season, Liverpool are showing that the standards and the bar would have to be high for anyone aiming to catch them, and the margin for error very little. It doesn’t seem too early to say a win at the Etihad could be akin to having one hand on the title.