• We have to win games, win games, win games, and when you don’t win, it will be more difficult — Guardiola
• Former Chelsea and Scotland winger Pat Nevin, who was at Anfield for BBC Radio 5 Live, gave City hope when he said: “Liverpool are not playing as well as they were playing last season.”
Pep Guardiola might well be facing the toughest challenge of his managerial career.
In the top-flight seasons in which Guardiola has won titles across Europe’s major leagues, he has never had to overcome a gap as large as 11 points — the current margin between leaders Liverpool and his Manchester City side, the defending champions.
City twice led at Newcastle before being forced to settle for a 2-2 draw in the early kick-off, before Liverpool overcame a nervy finish - which included a red card to goalkeeper Alisson for handball — to edge past mid-table Brighton on a dramatic day of action.
“We have to win games, win games, win games, and when you don’t win, it will be more difficult,” said Guardiola after his side dropped more points.
The Spaniard managed to overturn a 10-point gap last season as City hunted down Liverpool to win the Premier League title. And while there are still 24 games to go, have City already left themselves with too much to do?
City need Liverpool to have a poor run of form, yet Jurgen Klopp’s leaders have dropped just two points all season. Indeed, the Reds have dropped only 13 points in the last 32 top-flight games, even though they have not kept a clean sheet since 28 September.
“They looked like a real title-winning team to me,” said six-time Premier League winner Phil Neville, who watched Liverpool’s latest win. “At this stage of the season, sometimes performances don’t matter. When you see the result up at St James’ Park earlier in the day, it was a must-win game for Liverpool to extend the lead.”
Former Chelsea and Scotland winger Pat Nevin, who was at Anfield for BBC Radio 5 Live, gave City hope when he said: “Liverpool are not playing as well as they were playing last season.”
However, he added: “They are winning their games and that’s what it’s all about. With league titles, no-one in the end looks back and says, ‘You didn’t play well in this game or that game.’”
Much has been made of Liverpool’s hectic schedule between now and the start of 2020. Klopp’s side face nine games in four different competitions — including a trip to Qatar to play two fixtures at the Fifa Club World Cup, which is being broadcast by the BBC.
Yet Guardiola’s side have a tough December themselves, with eight matches in three different competitions - including two Premier League games in 48 hours against Wolves and Sheffield United.
Will such a busy schedule work against them in view of the lacklustre performance against Newcastle?
“They were too laboured, they did not move it quick enough and that’s why they were punished today,” former City midfielder Michael Brown told BBC Radio 5 Live. “They have let Liverpool get that lead now. They have not been themselves.”
Liverpool were without key midfielder Fabinho against Brighton, and the Brazilian is unlikely to play again until next year because of ankle ligament damage. Defenders Joel Matip and Nathaniel Clyne have also been nursing injuries, but City have a busy treatment room too.
Germany winger Leroy Sane and French defender Aymeric Laporte are expected to be out until around January and February, while Sergio Aguero is another big miss with a thigh injury. In addition, defender Oleksandr Zinchenko has not played for his club since 6 October because of knee damage.
“City have got injuries, but this is not an excuse,” added Brown.
Liverpool led City by nine points after a 5-1 win over Arsenal on December last year 29, yet Guardiola’s side managed to overturn the deficit in the last 19 matches.
“The chase is still on. We fight until the last day,” said defiant City and England defender John Stones after the Newcastle game.
That’s assuming the title battle goes as far as the final day of the season.
“Liverpool can win games playing badly, City played badly today but could not win,” said BBC Sport football expert Garth Crooks.
Klopp’s side scored twice in the closing stages at Aston Villa to win 2-1 on 2 November and scored a late winner at Crystal Palace on 23 November. City have failed to hang on to leads in three of their last five league and cup games.
Neville believes the way Liverpool keep going until the end could be a critical difference.
He said: “There are a lot of teams at the top who are looking tired. Then you look at Liverpool and the way they came back to win late at Crystal Palace.”
A huge sigh of relief could be heard around Anfield when referee Martin Atkinson sounded the final whistle on Saturday. Liverpool had the points and Klopp joined his players on the pitch to applaud the fans — the German preferring to concentrate on the positives afterwards.
“It’s unbelievable how much they want to win. They made it a really special win,” he said.
Speaking about Liverpool’s 11-point advantage, Klopp added: “It’s how it is. But if Leicester win tomorrow we are eight points. We don’t think about these things.”
At the same time as Klopp was talking to the media, City were on their way back to Manchester to prepare for tomorrow’s match at Burnley.
“We have another opponent in front of us, so we now have to try to win games and see what happens,” added Guardiola. “I said yesterday at the press conference that it’s not a good idea to think about the Premier League or think, how many points?”