There were two juggernauts in the Premier League last season. As winter gave way to spring, Liverpool and Manchester City ploughed through everything in their path, neither losing a game after the first week in January and not even dropping a point after the second week in March.
But if you’d told someone then that in a year one of those sides would still be relentlessly trampling over every other team in the division, top of the Premier League by a cavernous margin and having taken 100 from the last available 102 points, most would probably have guessed it would be Manchester City.
And yet, here we are. This season’s title was lost for Manchester City some time ago, trailing in Liverpool’s wake with the rest of them, only relatively recently inching ahead of Leicester for the right to be the second-best team in the land. A win over West Ham on Sunday would take them to within 19 points of Liverpool, and then probably only for a week. Whoop-de-doo.
The rest of the Premier League is now a box-ticking exercise for City. They’re 14 points ahead of fifth place, their position in the Champions League secure. Pep Guardiola could follow Jurgen Klopp’s lead and hand over the keys of the first team to the under-23s for the rest of the season and they would still end it in the top four.
And that’s exactly what he should do. Well, perhaps not exactly. But from this point on, Guardiola should regard Premier League games as high-profile training sessions, opportunities to simply keep his players ticking over in preparation for the more meaningful tasks ahead.
It’s a strange old state of affairs when the Carabao Cup, the competition that Guardiola wants to either be abolished or removed from his sight like the needless distraction he believes it to be, is now more meaningful to City than the Premier League (stream the final live on ESPN+ in the U.S. on March 1). The FA Cup too, but of course the Champions League is City and Guardiola’s true target.
You get the sense that it’s a source of embarrassment for Guardiola — who is ranked No. 2 behind Klopp among the world’s top managers in ESPN’s FC 100 –that he hasn’t won the Champions League since 2011. He’s now in his eighth season since, in which time he has managed three of the most powerful and dominant teams in the world, without even a final to show for it. For City too: this is the most lavishly funded football project in the history of the world, no expense spared in the pursuit of the elite and being the best, which they have yet to achieve.
With the remaining 13 Premier League games now being essentially meaningless to Guardiola and City, the psychology of those remaining fixtures must be quite tricky. But getting used as preparation for the Champions League is their true purpose now, so there are two ways they could approach these games: either rest and rotate, experiment and make sure his squad concentrates on Europe and the tie against Real Madrid in a few weeks, or treat the Premier League as if it’s still a live concern, going hell for leather just to keep the competitive spirit up.
The latter approach certainly has plenty of merit, but it’s also risky: the chance of losing a key player to injury is increased, and the chances of success in Europe would be dramatically reduced if Aymeric Laporte or Ederson or Kevin De Bruyne were laid low with injury. Reports indicate that Raheem Sterling is already touch and go for the first Real game, so any other injuries would be less than ideal.
The ‘all out’ approach is also the one Guardiola has adopted in every other league season when league games have meant little, in most of those cases for the opposite reason to now, with his team running away with the title instead of watching it disappear. But that hasn’t worked before, so it’s not unreasonable to suggest he should try something different.
If you wanted to search long and hard for the bright side of Liverpool’s dominance for City, it’s that it frees them from the prosaic grind of having to compete for points in the Premier League. They can rest, they can try things, they can experiment with different line-ups and formations and tactical approaches. They don’t need to bother with the league anymore, so why should they?
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Any other business
– A game when both teams are absolutely desperate for a victory could go one of two ways: either they both go all out for that win and we get a game of entertaining chaos, or both teams become crippled with doubt and fear losing so much that it becomes a nervous stalemate. Brighton vs. Watford is a case in point: the latter have only one win in the past 10, the other have lost the past two and are in slight danger of all the good work done in Nigel Pearson’s early days being flushed down the pan. Both need three points to escape the dastardly jaws of relegation, so either way, we recommend you tune in.
– Could Crystal Palace get sucked into the relegation scrap? Instinctively, you would say no, because they have that hardy edge which is usually enough to keep teams out of trouble. But Roy Hodgson’s side have the worst attack in the Premier League and haven’t won a game since Boxing Day. They’re six points clear of the bottom three, which might be enough of a buffer, but it’s not a huge one.
– Ryan Fraser made quite a surprising statement last week, admitting that he hadn’t been playing for the team while uncertainty over his future swirled. The Scottish winger’s contract is up in the summer, and Eddie Howe made clear this week that he didn’t expect Fraser to stay. So now there is a little more certainty over where he’ll play next season, will that be better or worse for Bournemouth? If it’s clear that he’s leaving, will he be less motivated, or now that everyone seems at peace with the situation, will he be more settled?