Liver­pool might be 11 points ahead of them in the ti­tle race but there’s a long way to go. So...

Scottish Daily Mail - - Football - By IAN HER­BERT

There was an ex­cel­lent mo­ment in the depths of Ukraine, three months ago, when the prob­lem which now threat­ens the no­tion of a Premier League ti­tle race was char­ac­terised by Pep Guardi­ola as a test of his cog­ni­tive skills.

‘For three or four months, I don’t know what will hap­pen,’ the Manch­ester City man­ager said, 24 hours af­ter John Stones had joined Aymeric La­porte on the treat­ment ta­ble, leav­ing a gap­ing hole in his de­fen­sive re­sources.

Guardi­ola lin­gered late, an­swer­ing ob­scure ques­tions about the Kharkiv prop­erty mar­ket and Ukrainian foot­ball af­ter a 3-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk. he was im­pres­sive. ‘Bring it on,’ he seemed to be say­ing.

The con­trast with what, at times, was an ex­cru­ci­at­ing press con­fer­ence in Manch­ester yes­ter­day could hardly be more strik­ing. In the 15 games since that night in east­ern europe, City have kept just five clean sheets and are on a run of seven games with­out one.

But Guardi­ola’s re­luc­tance to dis­cuss wholly jus­ti­fi­able ques­tions posed by the BBC — about why Fer­nand­inho is not op­er­at­ing in mid­field again when Ni­co­las Ota­mendi is on the bench — felt like little more than a sulk.

‘We are happy with our de­fence’ and ‘We are not good enough, we im­prove’ were two of the re­sponses, so con­tra­dic­tory that it was hard to tell whether the lat­ter was sar­casm. Si­lence fell sev­eral times as the room waited for elab­o­ra­tion that never came. Some­one ended the awk­ward­ness by ask­ing his views about Burn­ley.

We’ve been wit­ness­ing the gloom from Guardi­ola for a num­ber of weeks, as Liver­pool’s lead over his team has widened to 11 points. his ob­ser­va­tion af­ter vic­tory over Chelsea two weeks ago was that ten­nis play­ers and golfers lose some­times, so it’s fine for City to ac­cept the same. ex­tra­or­di­nary.

he’s been like this be­fore. In the 2011-12 sea­son at Barcelona, Jose Mourinho was prov­ing an in­tense ri­val at real Madrid. ‘We are not go­ing to win La Liga,’ said Guardi­ola, flatly, af­ter his side had beaten Atletico Madrid 2-1 away in late Fe­bru­ary. Many felt that was de­featism, with 14 games left, so he toned things down a few days later, say­ing there was ‘little chance’ they could close the gap. real won the league.

For the sake of the Premier

League’s com­pet­i­tive balance, it is to be hoped that he can put away this de­spon­dency.

Of course, City can still win the league. Their De­cem­ber fix­tures are not dis­sim­i­lar to Liver­pool’s. Both face Le­ices­ter, Wolves and have a derby to ne­go­ti­ate.

De­spite drop­ping just two points, Liver­pool are not win­ning with con­vic­tion and are about to en­counter a month like no other.

While City have qual­i­fied for the Cham­pi­ons League knock­out stage, Liver­pool face a dif­fi­cult trip to Salzburg, re­quir­ing a point to en­sure pas­sage against a free-scor­ing side boast­ing Nor­we­gian for­ward er­ling Braut haa­land. Then there is the en­er­gys­ap­ping trip to Qatar for the Club World Cup, which ends five days be­fore their Box­ing Day visit to the King Power Sta­dium.

The key mo­ment in Manch­ester United’s ti­tle of 2009 was put down by Sir Alex Fer­gu­son to win­ning at Stoke five days af­ter win­ning the Club World Cup in Ja­pan. It’s not en­tirely fan­ci­ful for Liver­pool to drop points in one of their three games be­fore then and lose at Le­ices­ter. City could then nar­row the gap to six points if their points re­turn is im­pec­ca­ble.

In an 11-year man­age­rial ca­reer,

Guardi­ola has never had to make up a lead as large as Liver­pool’s. It is mon­u­men­tal, of course, but don’t dis­count a level of pres­sure and noise amid the quest to se­cure a 19th ti­tle, 30 years af­ter the last.

It is un­known ter­rain for a side likely to be with­out Fabinho un­til next year be­cause of an­kle lig­a­ment dam­age. he shields a de­fence which, de­spite fea­tur­ing Vir­gil van Dijk (above), is only marginally more con­vinc­ing than City’s. Their se­quence of games with­out a clean sheet has ex­tended to 12 — the club’s worst run since 1998.

Le­ices­ter’s ti­tle chal­lenge feels less po­tent, not least be­cause ti­tle win­ners re­quire sev­eral play­ers to share the bur­den of goals — Jamie Vardy’s 24 and riyad Mahrez’s 17 in the 2015-16 sea­son, for ex­am­ple. Vardy is the Premier League’s top scorer with 13 goals, but James Mad­di­son and Ay­oze Perez are Le­ices­ter’s sec­ond high­est scor­ers with a far more dis­tant four each. Perez’s to­tal was also in­flated by a hat-trick in the 9-0 an­ni­hi­la­tion of Southamp­ton.

Le­ices­ter’s pos­ses­sion-based foot­ball will be eas­ier to con­tain than the hit-and-run coun­ter­at­tack­ing style of three years ago. And don’t bet against Bren­dan rodgers — sim­ply too am­bi­tious not to covet a move to Arse­nal at the end of this sea­son — con­tin­u­ing to be linked with a move away. A dis­trac­tion as the sea­son draws on. Guardi­ola’s in­tro­spec­tion is in­nate. When he and Klopp both ap­peared at a Foot­ball Writ­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion din­ner in Manch­ester last month, the Ger­man en­joyed a beer and lin­gered late. Guardi­ola sipped wa­ter and left when the awards had been dis­pensed.

But on that cold night in Kharkiv, Guardi­ola re­sponded jovially to the no­tion that he would not be averse to prov­ing his worth by man­ag­ing a less tal­ented Ukrainian team. ‘Not a prob­lem, not at all,’ he said. It was a classy, up­lift­ing per­for­mance of the kind City need now. A foot­ball sea­son is never lost by mid­win­ter.

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