As much as the rest of us can admire the relentless title race arm-wrestle between Liverpool and Manchester City which is now in its third instalment, it does very much feel as if we are watching on from a distance. The very real sense that unless the two closest pursuers in Leicester and Chelsea can deliver beyond expectations, once again it is destined to be a two-horse race.
For all their impressive results thus far, Leicester and Chelsea already sit eight points behind leaders Liverpool, not an insurmountable gap by any means, but the relentless form of Jürgen Klopp’s charges who have dropped just two points all season and haven’t lost in the League since their defeat at the Etihad in early January, some twenty-eight matches ago; suggests that they are unlikely to squander too many points from here on in.
As impressive as Leicester, seemingly revitalised under Brendan Rogers, have been so far this season when it has really mattered they haven’t quite been able to deliver. A trip to Old Trafford to face Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s beleaguered Manchester United side in mid-September, a match in which they were very much expected to lay down a marker as to their top four credentials, ended in a rather humbling 1-0 defeat. Similarly when they went to Anfield at the start of last month, as well as they played they still departed having been beaten.
Despite the well-documented constraints under which relative rookie coach Frank Lampard is having to operate: with the highly publicised transfer embargo and for now at least the enforced need to rely on the club’s talented youth prospects, Chelsea are looking a lot more impressive than most of us would have anticipated.
The Blues look like a very different side from last season’s which bored the Stamford Bridge faithful to tears with the stultifyingly structured and ponderous style of football overseen by Lampard’s predecessor Maurizio Sarri. It would however seem to be a major ask for the squad such as it currently is to hang onto Liverpool’s coattails let alone to overhaul them, even if the rumours are to be believed that the transfer ban may be lifted and Lampard will be given a £150m+ war chest to work with in January.
The state of the rest of the ‘Big Six’ with: Arsenal somehow sitting in fifth place, despite being singularly incapable of holding a lead and the complete lack of any discernible tactical approach or system of play; Manchester United looking exactly what they are a complete hotchpotch of signings made by three different managers given free reign with the Old Trafford cheque book; and Tottenham seemingly in decline with the manager and some senior players making not overly subtle overtures about their potential availability to others; suggests that neither of those three will be mounting anything resembling a title challenge for this season or indeed the foreseeable future.
The problem with the two-horse race, even given the supreme quality of the two protagonists, is that it limits the number of games that can be billed as title-influencing, if not title-deciding. In fact, without wanting to denigrate Leicester and Chelsea’s aspirations too much it could be argued that the clashes between City and Liverpool are the only ones that will determine the destination of the title. As a consequence that is why all eyes will be focused on Anfield this coming Sunday afternoon.
Even at such an early stage of the campaign as we approach the completion of the first 1/3rd of fixtures, it feels very much as if Pep Guardiola’s men cannot afford to let Liverpool increase their lead any further. A win for Liverpool would stretch their lead to nine points, essentially three defeats. While in the past we have seen comparable leads blown with a lot less games remaining, City and Liverpool have raised the bar to the extent that dropped points by either of them are a rare occurrence. Such a result could never be judged to be decisive but it would certainly be a significant step in the right direction towards their first title for three decades.
However a concern bubbling away behind the scenes for Klopp and his charges must be the potential backlog of fixtures that is starting to mount. Progression through to the League Cup Quarter Final combined with FIFA’s commercially motivated take on scheduling means that Liverpool could have to face the farcical prospect of playing two games in two days on December the 17th and 18th, one of which will actually be in Qatar for the meaningless Club World Cup. On top of that, depending how they fare in that League Cup match against Villa, they could have to endure a run of 12 games in 37 days between the 23rd of November and 2nd of January, which is without even considering the FA Cup Third Round scheduled for the first weekend of the new year. This ludicrous situation has prompted Klopp to state, and rightly so, that: “we cannot carry on like this”. With the games coming so thick and fast might fatigue and potential injury prove Liverpool’s undoing this time around?
From City’s perspective, they will of course be taking absolutely nothing for granted in terms of the leaders dropping too many points, however they will know that if they can go to Anfield and win that would cut the lead to just three points and the race would be well and truly back on.
City have however looked somewhat shaky this season, having lost two matches already away at Norwich and at home to Wolves and having lost Aymeric Laporte to long term injury are somewhat fragile at the back. They also haven’t managed to win at Anfield in the League for more than 16 years, losing in 15 of their 22 most recent visits. Equally there is a feeling that despite being the last team to beat them in the League, Liverpool hold something of a hoodoo over Pep Guardiola’s men, a perception borne out of the Champions League hammering of a couple of seasons ago. Of course it is impossible to win the title in November, however if they were to fall to defeat at Anfield again City might find that it is possible to lose it.