Man City, Pep Guardiola show they're feeling the pressure in Premier League title race with Liverpool
MANCHESTER, England -- Heading into this weekend of matches before Christmas, Jurgen Klopp claimed that Manchester City don't have any weaknesses. Pep Guardiola didn't buy this foray into mind games and, crucially, neither did Roy Hodgson, who set up his Crystal Palace side perfectly to pull off an unlikely three-point heist from the Etihad Stadium.
City's title challenge is under pressure from Liverpool in a way that it never was at any stage in their record-breaking stroll last season, and this has caused them to uncharacteristically falter in recent weeks. It's the reason why they'll spend Christmas Day four points behind their rivals and why back-to-back trips to Leicester City and Southampton in the next few days have suddenly taken on huge importance.
Much of City's marvellous football in their record-breaking title triumph of 2017-18 was played against the backdrop of a virtual exhibition season. Rivals were cut apart on a regular basis on their way to an incredible 100 points with 108 goals, but the best of it was done with the season finished so early. Despite Guardiola's protestations, the title race was over soon after the Christmas decorations had been taken down. His side didn't have a serious rival and the lack of pressure allowed them to play with the kind of freedom that makes it far easier to be adventurous and free-flowing.
What's forgotten is that in those games before the new year, when City began to move away from their rivals, they had their difficult moments. Last-minute winners against Bournemouth and Southampton along with narrow, hard-fought victories over West Brom, West Ham and Huddersfield were marked down as just another win as they extended the gap over the other title contenders. If any of those games had finished as a draw, it would have done little to interrupt their incessant march to the title.
It allowed them to do what Guardiola calls "keeping a cool head" -- the practice of maintaining their shapes and patterns, which eventually wears down their opponents until the constant attacking and movement provides a breakthrough. The big difference this season is that Liverpool have been matching them stride for stride and every point dropped in the title race seems crucial. City have now lost twice in their past three Premier League matches, handing the Reds what could turn out to be crucial advantage.
Hodgson, now 71, has been around football too long to believe the hype that any team are invincible, which is why he came to the Etihad Stadium with a plan to frustrate and play on the counter-attack with pace and optimism. It was the same strategy that worked for Lyon in the Champions League earlier in the season when they surprisingly won the Group F opener.
"I travelled up [north] thinking we could give a good performance," Hodgson said after Palace's 3-2 win on Saturday. "Getting something from the game would be a tough ask: they are such a strong team and have such a good bench.
"We certainly didn't come up here thinking we had no chance or this is the kind of game we had to write off."
Guardiola felt his side was unlucky to see the visitors score with their first two shots on target, the second a stunning 30-yard volley from Andros Townsend. What was worrying, although he did not say it in his postmatch news conference, was how quickly his City side was knocked out of its stride. His substitutions also seemed desperate rather than calculated, with Sergio Aguero replacing centre-back Nicolas Otamendi as City moved to two up front. Kevin De Bruyne was then quickly introduced as a replacement for left-back Fabian Delph as they desperately tried to rescue a point or better.
In the end, City lost their composure and were too often guilty of sending high balls into the box rather than trying to pick apart the defence, something they do so devastatingly when they are at their best.
On the bright side, De Bruyne has yet to start to a Premier League match this season and is coming back to full fitness at just the right time. Yet City are still missing the influence of David Silva, and while Bernardo Silva has been a brilliant understudy this season, he is starting to feel the pace in recent weeks. Similarly, Fernandinho is a big miss in the centre of the pitch and Guardiola doesn't have anyone who can fill in and offer the same knack of disrupting counter-attacks and linking defence with attack in such an effective way.
In most seasons and for most teams, City's start would have been considered excellent. But given their own high standards and the incessant pressure from Klopp's Liverpool, Guardiola needs them to be even better in the final months of the season.
Make no mistake, though: the pressure is undoubtedly on.