When it comes to winning titles, the current Manchester City side are the Premier League’s experts. Not just because they claimed the top-flight crown with a record points tally last season, but because each and every member of the team has a track record of success.
There are those who have only won trophies at City under Pep Guardiola, such as Kyle Walker and John Stones, but for the most part the manager has built a team of players who have won around the continent.
There is of course the old guard of Vincent Kompany, Sergio Aguero, Fernandinho and David Silva, who know what it takes to win the Premier League having done so on multiple occasions.
But there are also the likes of Riyad Mahrez, who won the league with Leicester, Bernardo Silva, who has won multiple titles with Benfica and Monaco, and Benjamin Mendy and Ederson, who have also won trophies in France and Portugal respectively.
Ilkay Gundogan was part of Jurgen Klopp’s dominant Borussia Dortmund side that won the German league and cup double seven years ago, while Kevin De Bruyne won a league title with Genk and cups at Wolfsburg.
That experience counts for much in itself, but it is all headed up by a serial winner in Guardiola, who has proven he can get his teams across the line on many occasions.
The 48-year-old has won 25 trophies since starting out as a manger just under 12 years ago, including seven league titles across Spain, Germany and England, as well as two Champions League trophies.
Guardiola said at the start of the season that the Premier League would be harder to defend than to win, and – as every English champion since Manchester United retained their crown in 2009 – it is proving so.
City have slipped up on more occasions than title challengers Liverpool this season, losing to Crystal Palace, Leicester and most recently Newcastle, but when the going has got tough, they have tended to bounce back and pull results out of the bag.
Following that 2-1 defeat to Newcastle last week, they have delivered convincing wins over Arsenal and Everton, moving ahead of Liverpool in the league for the first time since 8 December, albeit only on goal difference.
Liverpool have the opportunity to go top again with a result at home to Bournemouth on Saturday, but City can immediately resume or extend their lead when they host Chelsea on Sunday.
Piling on the pressure
Klopp’s side will have a game in hand regardless of the weekend’s results, but the old sporting adage dictates that it is better to have the points on the board. Another three for City would certainly add to the mounting pressure on Liverpool.
Coming into 2019, the Reds looked almost unstoppable and destined to win a league title that had eluded them for 28 years.
But as the new year turned so did their form, with Liverpool losing their first game of January to City before crashing out of the FA Cup to Wolves in the third round.
The significance of that result and the importance of winning a minor domestic trophy are open to debate, yet there have been signs of Liverpool’s nerves ever since.
A narrow 1-0 win away to Brighton followed but it required a controversial Mohamed Salah penalty to seal it, while Crystal Palace took them all the way in a 4-3 win at home.
Since then, Liverpool have been held to 1-1 draws with both Leicester and West Ham, after which Klopp did not dispel suggestions he may be feeling the heat when he got into a row with Hammers boss Manuel Pellegrini and lambasted the officials – despite his team’s only goal owing much to a clear offside itself.
For all Liverpool’s talent, questions remain over whether their squad possesses the winning mentality of City’s when it truly matters.
Captain Jordan Henderson was there the last time Liverpool won a trophy – the 2012 EFL Cup – but since then he has seen the Premier League title get away under Brendan Rodgers in 2013-14 and is a four-time loser in finals as the Reds fell to defeats in the 2012 FA Cup, 2016 EFL Cup, the 2016 Europa League and the 2018 Champions League.
Klopp’s record of six defeats in seven major finals, including Liverpool’s three most recent, has been well-documented. He did win back to back Bundesliga titles at Dortmund though, so a title race is not unfamiliar territory.
This weekend Liverpool need Chelsea to do them a favour and take points from City, just as they did back in December when Maurizio Sarri’s side ground out a 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge.
Since then, Chelsea have had mixed form themselves, reaching the EFL Cup final with a penalty shootout win over Tottenham but allowing Manchester United and Arsenal back into the battle to finish in the top four.
This time the Blues have Gonzalo Higuain at their disposal after Sarri finally got his former Napoli frontman on loan from Juventus for the remainder of the season, in place of Alvaro Morata.
At 31, the Argentina forward’s best days may be behind him, but he demonstrated he still has much to offer with a well taken brace against Huddersfield last weekend and some excellent link-up play with Eden Hazard.
Sunday will be the first of two occasions in which City and Chelsea meet in as many weeks, with the EFL Cup final sandwiched in-between City s Champions League first leg with Schalke and a league match against West Ham.
Guardiola’s side also face Newport County in the FA Cup next weekend as part of a hectic February schedule as they continue to fight on all four fronts; a factor that could yet be advantageous to Liverpool’s title hopes.
While Chelsea will be desperate to get something from the game against City and bolster their bid to finish in the top four, a win for the champions would send a resounding message to their Merseyside rivals that they are in this race for the long haul.