A title race can hinge on the smallest of moments.
What if, in January, John Stones had been a fraction of a second later to the goalline clearance which prevented Liverpool from going in front at the Etihad Stadium? Would Manchester City have gone on to win the game 2-1? Would they have gone on from there to retain the Premier League crown?
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Liverpool looked back ruefully on that moment when City finished a point ahead of them in May. Perhaps this time, City will reflect on the decision not to award them a penalty when the ball struck Trent Alexander-Arnold’s arm in the early stages of Sunday’s meeting at Anfield in the same way.
Twenty-two seconds later, of course, Fabinho met Ilkay Gundogan’s poor clearance down at the other end with the stunning drive which put Liverpool in front. It was a setback from which City did not recover. The 3-1 defeat leaves them nine points behind Jurgen Klopp’s side and adds to the growing feeling that, finally, this might be Liverpool’s year.
Liverpool have now taken 34 points from a possible 36 this season. Include the final nine Premier League games of the last campaign and they have won 20 of the last 21. Their eight-point lead at the top of the table is the biggest at this stage of a season since Manchester United in 1993/94. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side went on to win the title by eight points that year.
It is an encouraging omen and, penalty or not, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see quite how anybody will stop them. Even in the last few weeks, when their performance levels have dipped and they have been confronted by adversity in games against Leicester, Tottenham and Aston Villa, they have shown the persistence and powers of recovery needed to pull them through.
There has been good fortune along the way too, of course, but that only adds to the aura around this side right now and their performance against City on Sunday was the latest reminder of just how devastating they can be when they hit their stride.
It was the second goal, headed home by Mohamed Salah from a sublime ball by Andrew Robertson, who had been picked out by an even better one from Trent Alexander-Arnold, which showed Liverpool at their best. But the other two were perhaps more fitting for this side.
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Because when Fabinho can conjure up a strike like that, and when Jordan Henderson – your other workmanlike midfielder – can produce a cross with the quality of his assist for Sadio Mane’s goal, then you know something special is happening. The belief coursing through this team is plain to see.
It should be noted, of course, that this Manchester City side have been here before. Last season, they found themselves 10 points behind Liverpool at the end of December. It required a gargantuan effort to overhaul them, with City winning 18 of their remaining 19 games.
Do they have it in them to claw back the deficit again?
Pep Guardiola described their performance as “incredible” in his post-match interview with Sky Sports at Anfield, insisting this title race is by no means over, but while it’s true that City created plenty of chances, their issues at the other end mean the relentless form of their rivals is far from their only problem.
Their back four of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Fernandinho and Angelino struggled badly, their panic apparent not just in the routine passes they sent astray but in their body language too. There were rushed clearances, missed challenges and, at one point in the first-half, even a full-blown argument between Walker and Stones.
Ederson’s absence in goal compounded matters and, with Aymeric Laporte unlikely to return for several months yet, City’s prospects do not look bright. They are without a clean sheet in four games. They have conceded nearly three times as many goals as at the same stage of last season.
“The big mistake was not replacing the man in the studio, Vincent Kompany,” observed Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports.
As well as lacking depth at centre-back, it appears Guardiola does not trust the players brought in to take City forward at full-back. Joao Cancelo was an unused substitute at Anfield while Benjamin Mendy did not even make the squad. “You’ve got £100m of full-backs who aren’t playing through choice,” said Gary Neville. “Pep Guardiola has no excuse.”