Last season Liverpool proved to be Pep Guardiola’s kryptonite, ending their 30-game unbeaten streak in the league in a 4-3 thriller in January, before dumping the Citizens out of the Champion’s League in the Quarter Finals three months later.
While Liverpool were pushing for European Qualification of their own in the league last year, this season promises to be much more favourable, as they are only behind champions City on goal difference.
As such, fireworks were expected ahead of the clash between the two heavyweights, yet the 0-0 scoreline brought expectations crashing back down to Earth.
You would have to scroll back to 2003 to find Manchester City’s last league win at Anfield. Their tag as ‘bogey team’ could help their title aspirations this season, but is it only a question of Liverpool vs City this season already, or are there other pretenders to the throne?
Though the match did not pan out with quite the same razzle-dazzle as expected, it demonstrated the mutual respect that these two title contenders had for each other. Both sets of fullbacks were held back to provide cover against the counter. It was a much less offensive display from City; their first attempt on target came in the 38th minute.
It was clear Guardiola set out like never before to alter his side’s fortunes from last year, and had Mahrez’ disastrous penalty turned out differently, it would have reaped greater rewards.
There was much anticipation amongst Liverpool fans during the off-season, as an encouraging run to the Champion’s League final was followed up by a summer spending spree that seemed to plug all the necessary gaps. The signing of Naby Keita added steel and athleticism to their midfield, whilst Alisson arrived to finally solve their goalkeeping woes.
Manchester City, on the other hand, had a tamer transfer window, adding Riyad Mahrez to their already illustrious attacking ranks. Whilst City were already well-equipped to retain their trophy, Liverpool seemed to be making all the right noises about snatching their first Premier League title.
Seven points better off than at this stage last year, their fast start should stand them in good stead for the season.
That being said, it would not be fair to rule out Chelsea at this stage, who sit level with Liverpool and City on 20 points. Chelsea do have the experience of beating off competition to win titles, having overcome Tottenham’s pressure in the 2016/17 season, something which Manchester City are not quite used to under Guardiola, dealing with next to no competition for the majority of last year.
Eden Hazard’s sublime form has placed him top of the scoring charts with seven goals, spearheading their unbeaten start. Having scored 39% of Chelsea’s league goals it’s clear he’s their talisman, but what is not clear is who will step up in tougher times.
Olivier Giroud has not scored double figures since the 2016/17 season for Arsenal but has taken up more of a central role in holding up play, and Alvaro Morata has never looked confident in the Premier League.
Whilst they can afford him some rest without the more gruelling Champion’s League commitments of their rivals, Chelsea’s reliance on Hazard could prove fatal to their title chances later in the season.
It doesn’t seem that Tottenham have the capacity to compete with the pace-setters either. Their failure to strengthen their squad will come back to bite them when their lack of depth is laid bare later in the season. Their comfortable defeat at home to Liverpool highlighted the distance between the two sides at present.
The uncertainty of their new stadium is another distraction that could threaten to derail their progress, much like West Ham’s recent move to the Olympic Stadium. As such, it is hard to see Spurs continue their upward momentum this season.
Arguably one of the stories of the season so far has been Manchester United’s implosion. José Mourinho’s disputes with his players, most notably Paul Pogba, have been well documented. After flexing their financial muscle, they still only managed a second place finish last year.
And while their expenditure did not reach the same heights this summer, there was still an expectation that the Red Devils would challenge Guardiola’s men yet again. Yet already they find themselves seven points off the summit, well behind their rivals. It is shaping up to be another season of misery and excuses at Old Trafford, which could see the initiative relinquished to the other half of Manchester once more.
That being said, it is still very early in the season. Anything could happen between now and May. Losing Van Dijk to injury could spoil Liverpool’s party, and with City proving last year their ability to cope with injuries to key players, we could well see this turn into a one-horse race yet again. At this stage, there can be no telling what will happen, but with fortune on their side, I would back Klopp to take Guardiola the distance.
Photograph: Thomas Rosenbücher via Flickr