“It’s a bit like a recipe,” Pep Guardiola theorises in Pep Confidential. “League titles are won in the final eight games, but they are lost in the first eight games”.
When he invited friend and journalist Marti Perarnau to document his 2013-14 season with Bayern Munich, Guardiola wouldn’t have been thinking about the ramifications of such statements. But, just over six years on from saying it, he will be hoping he can prove his own statement wrong.
That’s because after the apparently decisive marker of eight games, his Manchester City side are in danger of allowing an insurmountable gap to develop at the top of the Premier League table.
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Liverpool, who City battled so hard to eventually overcome last year, are eight points clear going into the international break, having seen their last-gasp 2-1 win over Leicester City on Saturday followed by a shock 2-0 home defeat for their rivals against Wolves a day later.
Wolves’ well-deserved triumph came just three days on from a 4,000-mile round trip to Turkey to play Besiktas in the Europa League and was courtesy of someone familiar to Guardiola.
Adama Traore came through the fabled Barcelona youth system when the Catalan was in charge of the Spanish giants. His pace was no secret.
And yet as City pushed for a late winner, it was the pacey wide man who twice combined with Raul Jimenez on the counter-attack to hand out City’s first home defeat for 10 months.
At least they had scored in the previous failure – a 3-2 loss to Crystal Palace. Today’s blank for Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and co was the first time in 17 months that City had failed to score at the Etihad Stadium.
The international break should provide solace for City, who have now lost two and drawn one of their eight league matches. While it is no excuse for a club of their financial pedigree, injuries have undoubtedly played a part in their difficulties.
Aymeric Laporte’s serious knee injury, and the subsequent thigh problem for John Stones, has left City short in central defence.
The error-prone Nicolas Otamendi and fill-in centre-back Fernandinho looked awkward and unfamiliar against the challenges presented by Wolves, while left-back Benjamin Mendy was unavailable due to a hamstring complaint.
Throw in the groin injury which saw Kevin De Bruyne sit the match out and City’s uncharacteristic lack of creativity is partly explained.
“When you are in front and top of the table, it feels great to look at it,” midfielder Ilkay Gundogan said. “Now it is tougher to look at it, there is quite a gap already and none of us are watching the table now.”
In comparison Liverpool are sitting pretty, with James Milner’s 95th-minute penalty seeing them continue their perfect 2019-20 league record and extend their overall Premier League winning streak to 17 games – just one short of City’s between August and December 2017.
Jurgen Klopp’s side appear to be a settled, consistent winning machine, especially at Anfield where they are unbeaten in 44 league games.
While City’s injuries are having a clear negative effect on the pitch, the calf injury picked up by Reds’ goalkeeper Alisson on the opening weekend is yet to cost them.
Whichever way you look at it it’s a promising start for Liverpool. But having surrendered a seven-point lead in January to miss out on the title by a single point last year, Klopp is understandably cautious for now.
“We are there, in and around the situation and that’s good,” he said. “We respect the hard work we have to do. So far so good, but [there are] 30 games to come, so we are not fussed by the situation, when people talk to us about the winning streak.”
If Liverpool can maintain their momentum for the next month then they will be presented with a huge opportunity to cement their dominance. After league matches against Manchester United, Tottenham and Aston Villa, Klopp’s side host City at Anfield on 10 November.
It could be the chance to land a decisive blow, akin to City’s 2-1 victory in January, which proved to be Liverpool’s only league defeat in the entire 2018-19 campaign.
Guardiola described last season’s title win – his eighth from 10 campaigns as a manager – as “the toughest title we have won in all my career by far”.
The early signs this year are that he might have to top it if he wants to make it a hat-trick of Premier League trophies.
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