Pep and Sarri can't afford more slip-ups
There can be no respite for a title-chasing team with four league defeats by February and, though Manchester City have recovered impressively to keep pace with Liverpool at the top of the Premier League, today's visit of Chelsea is a reminder of where things started to go wrong.
People were still talking about City going through the season unbeaten when Chelsea won 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in December. A raft of speculative features about who could possibly stop Pep Guardiola's winning machine suddenly became redundant when Crystal Palace and Leicester added their names to the list in the same month.
City have steadied the ship since the turn of the year, getting away with a lapse at Newcastle thanks to Liverpool failing to cash in against Leicester and West Ham, but Chelsea arrive with their own need for points, having had the assumption of a top-four finish challenged by Manchester United's revival. Maurizio Sarri's side had something of an aberration, too, when attempting to play Eden Hazard as a central focus of attack, but have signed Gonzalo Higuain and are ostensibly stronger now.
Sarri does not believe it will be a game of many chances and reckons it might not be decided by the forwards. "The midfield of Manchester City is one of the best in the world," he said. "Not only Fernandinho but also Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, David Silva. Technically there is nothing better in Europe, so it will be really difficult to be in control of the match, but I think that is the area that will decide the game, more than the strikers. They are still able to play if you manage to stop Fernandinho, we are able to play if you stop Jorginho. We have options in midfield, but maybe they have more options than us."
What Sarri is principally trying to do with Chelsea is earn enough points to guarantee Champions League football next season. Like City, Chelsea cannot afford many more slip-ups, which is one reason Guardiola has referred to today's game as a cup final.
While that might be overplaying it slightly, bearing in mind that the same teams meet in a real cup final in two weeks, there is no doubt it comes at the end of a demanding and significant week. Guardiola has preferred not to dwell on what Liverpool have been doing, but if City are able to take all nine points from playing Arsenal, Everton and Chelsea in the space of eight days, it will magnify the potential importance of recent points lost by their rivals.
That is not Guardiola playing mind games, that is simply what the Premier League table has to say. Were the City manager interested in making Liverpool feel more jittery he would have been pointing out how tough it is to go out in front and stay there. Instead he has kept a consistent focus on his own team's performances.
The City manager said: "This season is a bit different from the last two or three, it might be a battle right to the end. That is what I like about it. People say we underestimated Newcastle, or opponents in Europe, or whatever, but I say we are in the Carabao Cup final and still fighting in all the competitions. We don't underestimate anyone. In the last five or six years no English champion has managed to put up a decent defence the following season, but we intend to do so and we are not giving up."
That seems to have been noticed on Merseyside, though Guardiola is dismissive of suggestions that after 29 years in the title wilderness Liverpool lack the winning mentality necessary to become champions. "I'm not buying that at all," the City manager said. "This is a team that went all the way to the Champions League final last season. Maybe Leicester and West Ham just did a good job. I don't think Liverpool dropping points had anything to do with their mentality. It is easy to drop points in this league, as we know."
- Manchester City v Chelsea, Sky Sports Premier League, 4.0
Sunday Indo Sport