The final international break is over. The remaining games are right there in front of them. The starting gun is about to be fired on another sprint to the line between Manchester City and Liverpool in the Premier League.
Saturday marks the beginning of a six-week fight for the title between two teams that have dominated English soccer over the past five years and set a new bar when it comes to what’s required to win the league.
And here they are again, back as the top two and separated by just one point with nine matches to go — one of which sees them face each other in what could be the defining match of the season.
City, the defending champion, holds the lead — as it has done since the end of December — but an advantage that was as large as 14 points in mid-January, when Liverpool had games in hand, has shrunk to such an extent that Jurgen Klopp’s team might be some people’s favorites.
Liverpool has fewer losses — two — and is on a nine-match winning run in the league. Heading into April, Liverpool has already won the League Cup and is still alive in the FA Cup and the Champions League.
The unprecedented quadruple, amazingly, remains on.
“They are always there,” City manager Pep Guardiola said recently. “A pain … all the time.”
Klopp surely feels the same about City.
After all, City has won three of the last four league titles — and five of the last 10 — and has pedigree in mounting strong finishes. Their players know how to finish the job off.
Crucially, City has home advantage in its April 10 showdown with Liverpool at Etihad Stadium. Avoid defeat and few would be surprised if Guardiola’s team wins its other matches.
It promises to be a riveting finale between two closely matched teams. Here’s a look at some of the big questions in the title race:
WHO HAS THE BETTER SCHEDULE?
City, by a nose. Apart from the visit of Liverpool, City doesn’t play another team in the current top six. Its toughest other match looks to be at West Ham on the next-to-last weekend. That comes three days before the final of the Europa League, a competition West Ham is still involved in. City’s last game is at home to Aston Villa, which is managed by Liverpool great Steven Gerrard. Liverpool still has to play Manchester United and Tottenham, though both of those games are at home. The Reds might need to win all of their remaining league games, which — given they are already on a nine-match winning run — would mark an unprecedented streak of top-flight victories.
WHO HAS THE STRONGER SQUAD?
For the first time, it might be Liverpool. Certainly Klopp now has the edge over Guardiola when it comes to attacking options, with the January signing of Luis Diaz adding further competition in a forward line that already includes Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino. The only weak spot appears to be a backup to Trent Alexander-Arnold at right back, which could be significant as he is currently out injured and could struggle to make the City game. City has played this season without an out-and-out striker and only Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling have reached double figures in goals with 10 each. Three of the leading six scorers in the league are Liverpool players: Salah (20), Jota (13) and Mané (12). City’s most important player during the run-in might be Rodri, the defensive midfielder who is key to the balance of the team and is far more reliable than his backup, the 36-year-old Fernandinho.
WILL OTHER COMPETITIONS GET IN THE WAY?
They could, especially the Champions League if City and Liverpool go deep in Europe this season. They could even potentially meet in the final in Paris in late May. Liverpool has the easier path on paper, having drawn Benfica in the quarterfinals before a possible semifinal meeting with Villarreal or Bayern Munich. City must get past Atlético Madrid before playing either Chelsea or Real Madrid in the semifinals. The fact that City and Liverpool also meet in the FA Cup semifinals on April 16 adds another layer of intrigue. City’s April schedule looks daunting — after Burnley away on Saturday, it’s Atlético-Liverpool-Atlético-Liverpool in an 11-day span. In that period, Liverpool has the double-header against Benfica. The key moment in the title race could be the midweek game that follows that four-match rush. Whereas City plays Brighton at home on April 20, Liverpool will host a Manchester United team that has only the league left to focus on this season.
WHO IS THE FAVORITE ON APRIL 10?
City is at home and unbeaten in the teams’ last four meetings. Liverpool has the momentum. It’s a tough one to call and a draw might be the best bet. That would suit City more, keeping the destiny of the title in its hands, and Guardiola has curbed his attacking instincts to set his team up more compactly in the big games over the last two seasons. If, however, the match turns out being more chaotic, Liverpool has the firepower to pull off victory. The availability of Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool’s most creative player despite being a right back, could be key.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80