MANCHESTER – Three points that no one has really seen Manchester City lose. Three points that few believed a beleaguered Tottenham would win. Now what about the title race and the jumble of clubs vying to finish just behind the league leaders?
In reality, perhaps a City win shouldn’t have been taken for granted, no matter how disappointing Spurs had been in recent weeks. After all, something seems to happen to Pep Guardiola’s players when they face this particular opponent. It was the fourth of the last five Premier League meetings between these two to end in victory for Tottenham, as they were so spectacularly in the 2019 Champions League quarter-finals.
The stakes might have been slightly lower on Saturday but it was no less dramatic as City’s long chase for a second equalizer apparently ended with a Riyad Mahrez penalty in injury time only for Harry Kane to strike his second of the game moments later. There is still a long way to go this season, but there will be those in Merseyside, North London and Manchester who wonder if this can be a pivotal moment.
The title race
Spurs’ win quickly suggested the title chase was on. When was it ever extinct? After all, it’s not like City are being chased by brave underdogs who might eventually disappear. It could be argued that the two best teams in the world are now vying for the top spot in the Premier League.
What changed for Liverpool on Saturday is that their fate is now in their hands. Of course, it’s also in City’s. The league leaders are six points clear but have played one game more than Jurgen Klopp’s side. This game in hand, it should be noted, is not a three-point banker. On March 16, Liverpool travel to the Emirates Stadium, a ground they have already won in the League Cup this season, but this time they could well face an Arsenal side closer to full strength. Then they welcome Manchester United to Old Trafford.
Yet Liverpool fans will inevitably have jumped past these games immediately after Kane’s back post header. Suddenly, all eyes turned to April 9 and a visit to the Etihad Stadium. Win there, which they last did in the Champions League quarter-finals four years ago, and the title race would be decided by results elsewhere. Such is the relentless pace at which these two teams are picking up points that it seems possible goal difference could enter the fray, currently led by City but by a nice margin. They scored 63 and conceded 17, the Reds are at 64 and 20.
Even City are mentally circling around this particular date. “We have known for the past few years that Liverpool are still in contention,” said full-time Ilkay Gundogan. “They’re still up there.
“We know they will try everything to make our lives as difficult as possible. The good thing is that they still have to come here at the Etihad, but there are still a lot of games to play.”
Those games include a home game against Spurs in early May for Liverpool and a Manchester Derby for City, whose fixture list is perhaps less landmine-filled than the team just behind them. Since losing their first two games, Guardiola’s side haven’t particularly wavered, losing four games in total and usually following defeat with a string of impressive results. Statistical models such as FiveThirtyEight still make them strong precursors, maybe for that reason, but this defeat will certainly have renewed faith in Anfield.
The fight for the fourth
Assuming there is indeed a Champions League berth up for grabs – Chelsea haven’t always been easy on the eyes of late, but they’ve gotten the results they need – Spurs will now see themselves as the… one of the main contenders for this award. .
Although Wolverhampton Wanderers may bristle at their exclusion (they just aren’t scoring enough), it’s likely the Premier League fourth-place side will come from a quartet of Manchester United, West Ham, Arsenal and Tottenham.
Currently, it is the Red Devils who are in fourth place but that is as much a reward for attendance as anything else. They have 43 points in 25 games, two more than Spurs and Arsenal have played. They will be three ahead in the games played column by Sunday when they face Yorkshire rivals Leeds United and their pursuit of the top four has faltered somewhat in the new year amid talk of morale and cliques in the locker room.
The remainder of February and March could be decisive for Ralf Rangnick’s side, who are set to face Manchester City, Spurs and Liverpool in back-to-back Premier League games as well as participate in a Champions League round of 16 second leg against Liverpool. ‘Atletico Madrid. Find form there and the picture might brighten, but even then there would be games with Arsenal and Chelsea to come.
Perhaps that’s why they join the other team from USA as more unlikely contenders for fourth place. West Ham have faltered in recent weeks and have won just one of their last five league games. They may be fifth but have played the most league games aged 26 but are still level on points with Arsenal. Jarrod Bowen aside, their main forwards seem to be struggling for form at the wrong time.
It couldn’t be said for Spurs after Kane’s brace, but the man himself identified what could be the biggest problem with this team. “We can’t just put in one-off performances like this, it has to be consistent game after game,” he said. “It’s about learning, but it will definitely give everyone a boost. Hopefully we can work that into Wednesday’s game. [against Burnley].”
Their other issue might just be that they’re not particularly good at taking points from those around them. So far this season they have lost to all four other top chasers as well as Chelsea (twice).
This could bode well for Arsenal, who have yet to head up the Seven Sisters Road for the delayed North London derby at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. At the moment they are masters of their own destiny, one point behind fourth having played two games less than Manchester United. However, these ongoing matches also include Liverpool and Chelsea. Mikel Arteta will surely look to the next games between now and the end of April (when they face Manchester United and West Ham back to back) as the times to apply the scoreboard pressure.
With three months left in the remaining season, the shape of the major races at the top of the table is now set. However, as Saturday’s thriller at the Etihad showed, the only certainty is that there will be plenty of surprises to shake up these two important battles.