John Aldridge: 'Pep Guardiola is clearly fearful of Liverpool - but every other team is terrified of Man City'
MANCHESTER CITY start the new Premier League season as strong favourites to hang on to the title.
That might sound like a defeatist attitude from a Liverpool man who is clearly hoping the club’s 30-year wait for a domestic league title will end next May, but I just can’t see that happening given the dynamics in England’s top flight.
City strolled to the title after collecting 100 points a couple of years back, and last year they beat Liverpool to top spot by picking up 98 points and fending off an incredible challenge from Jurgen Klopp’s Reds.
Liverpool’s haul of 97 points would have won the title in any other year, yet they were second-favourites for most of the run-in and City rarely looked like dropping points against opposition that simply don’t believe they can beat them.
The return of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from a long-term injury is akin to a new signing for Liverpool.
And I fancy midfielder Naby Keita to make more of an impact after an indifferent first season at the club, the bar is being set so high to win the Premier League trophy right now and City will not be lowering it any time soon.
With the help of unlimited funding from the club’s oil-rich owners, Guardiola has built a great team and the club-record signing of Spanish international midfielder Rodri adds to their options heading into the new campaign. Incredibly, though, they don’t need any extra players to continue their domestic domination.
Despite their latest flop in the Champions League, City won a domestic treble pretty comfortably last season, with their 6-0 win against Watford in the FA Cup final highlighting the gulf in quality between Pep Guardiola’s side and everyone other than Liverpool.
I expect City to collect between 90 and 100 points once again this season and that means Liverpool will need to put in a near flawless display once more to stick with them.
While Klopp’s side confirmed they can hold their nerve in a title race by winning their last nine Premier League matches, it still wasn’t enough to stop a City side that are a few steps ahead of every team other than those in the top-six positions.
I would expect City to see off everybody except Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal home and away, which will give them more than 80 points before we start totting up their points from the top-of-the-table clashes.
Quite simply, the lower-ranked sides don’t believe they can take on City in a straight fight and they go into damage limitation mode before a ball is kicked, which makes life easy for Guardiola’s men.
We have seen what can happen when European sides have a go at that City defence and put them under some pressure, with their poor results in the Champions League group stages last season confirming they don’t like teams having a go at them.
However, we won’t see that too often in the Premier League over the next few months, with the wins for Crystal Palace, Leicester and Newcastle against City last season shocks that are unlikely to be repeated this time around.
It all means that Liverpool may need to beat City twice to give themselves a chance of staying in the title race until the final day of the season, but I would be surprised if Klopp’s side pick up the results they achieved week after week in the coming months.
Liverpool pulled out some massive wins last season as they snatched late goals to win matches they were struggling in and it would be surprising to see all the pieces of that jigsaw fall into place again.
I expect Liverpool to finish second in the Premier League and, once again, they probably have a more realistic chance of winning the Champions League than the English title.
In a one-on-one battle with City this Liverpool side have proved they are more than a match for their big rivals and it was very interesting to see Guardiola talking about his fear of going to Anfield in an interview with Spanish TV last month.
It’s been clear for a long time that he doesn’t fancy the head-to-head with Klopp, with the defensive approach he adopted at Anfield last season evidence that he was fearful of opponents who have shown they can take City apart if they get half a chance.
The 5-1 Champions League quarter-final win from a couple of seasons back left a lasting impression on Guardiola and his City players, but there are simply not enough teams in England who strike that kind of fear into the champions to make a difference in the title race.
City start the season with games against West Ham next weekend and follow that up with matches against Tottenham, Bournemouth, Brighton, Norwich and Watford.
Aside from the Spurs game, they will win all of those matches comfortably and if Liverpool want to take the Premier League title off them, they may need to break through that 100-point barrier.
Liverpool should be bolstered by their status as European champions and the confidence gained from the Champions League win can only help Klopp’s side, but the smart money in the title race will be placed on Manchester City once again.
Read John Aldridge every week in The Sunday World.