Football news - Get past Chelsea and you might as well crown Manchester City champions again
Kyle Walker was deep in discussion with John Stones when he threw the strapping from around his wrist onto the playing surface in disgust.
After six successive shut-outs during September and October, it’s now just one clean sheet in five Premier League games for Manchester City, and the England international was not at all happy about the nature of their latest goal conceded.
But the sight of Walker cursing Abdoulaye Doucoure’s scrappy strike at Watford was not good news for City’s Premier League title challengers.
City concede a late goal at Watford through Abdoulaye DoucoureGetty Images
Those final five minutes at Vicarage Road had been unexpected. City were cruising to yet another victory, Ederson was busy playing no-look passes, but then Fabian Delph was sloppily dispossessed by Gerard Deulofeu and Doucoure bundled in his cross at the third attempt.
This was a rare sign of weakness in the defending champions, but the manner in which they saw out the game, and the subsequent frustration etched all over Walker’s face as he trudged off the field of play, indicated the degree to which City aren’t about to implode.
Contrary to the glimmer of hope Doucoure’s goal might have represented to nearest rivals Liverpool, this was quite possibly the worst possible outcome, with Pep Guardiola no doubt reminding his player of the displeasure felt in those final few minutes in Hertfordshire, whilst adding another three points to the tally.
Kyle Walker looked dejected as he walked off at Vicarage RoadGetty Images
Liverpool are enjoying their best ever start to a top-flight season. If this was 1958 (accounting for two points for a win), they would be 13 points clear at the top. They are set for a points total of 98, which would represent the most in their history, and yet there is a sense that it is they who will crack first.
The pressure is on Jurgen Klopp’s side to keep on the coat-tails of City, and the congested fixture list will test their manager’s nerves in the coming weeks. Liverpool face Bournemouth on Saturday ahead of a do-or-die contest with Napoli in their final Champions League group game.
Gary Neville warned Klopp to focus on ending a 29-year wait to be crowned champions of England again, but he is likely to go as strong as possible with his team selection at the Vitality Stadium.
They were fortunate to win last Sunday’s Merseyside derby, before a second-half rescue act at Burnley came at a cost.
Liverpool look set to be without Joe Gomez for a period of timeGetty Images
Even when Klopp opted to field Daniel Sturridge, Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi, it was typically a first-team regular who suffered injury, with it now confirmed that Joe Gomez fractured his leg in a sweeping challenge from Ben Mee.
Liverpool only turned the contest in their favour at Turf Moor after the introduction of Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah midway through the second-half and Klopp will welcome the return to facing a team known for their technical ability.
Bournemouth’s 4-0 defeat at Burnley earlier in the season – and Liverpool’s 4-0 win on the south coast last season – suggests Eddie Howe’s side could be classed as being in the same mould as this weekend’s opponents.
Klopp will be wary of the danger posed by Callum Wilson and Ryan Fraser, who have combined for six goals this season – the highest number of any pairing in the competition.
Liverpool showed against Burnley why they can't afford to rotate as much as CityGetty Images
City now head to face Chelsea in what would ordinarily be classed as one of their toughest fixtures of the season, but they arrive in the capital in rude health, even without the injured pair of Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne.
The rotation season is the equivalent of running over hot coals for both Klopp and Guardiola, but the most indispensable seldom get left out.
Virgil van Dijk and Alisson are likely to play through the festive period, among others for Liverpool, but City shuffled their entire defence against Watford, and still won.
They are a steam train, and when playing away from the Etihad Stadium, they resemble a team of globetrotters on tour. Their presence in the West End this weekend would sell out far quicker than anything on Shaftesbury Avenue.
Chelsea began the season 12 games unbeaten, and yet they sit 10 points behind the defending champions after two defeats in their last three games. Another reverse on Saturday evening, and they can truly forget about any faint title hopes.
Chelsea were beaten at Wolves on Wednesday nightGetty Images
But even if Liverpool prove too strong for Bournemouth, it only feels like a matter of time before the gap of two points gets bigger. City have won 49 of their last 57 Premier League games, while their goal difference of plus-38 after 15 games is the best since Sunderland back in the 1892/93 season.
This is a very good Liverpool side, but not even the sight of Gabriel Jesus bereft of any confidence can be classed as grounds for optimism.
In the corresponding fixture last season, it was a De Bruyne strike at Chelsea which signalled that City were the team to catch.
City landed a significant blow to Chelsea last season, and this game has a similar feel to itGetty Images
The 1-0 scoreline flattered Chelsea, and it was a landmark result which not only signalled the beginning of the end for Antonio Conte, but also moved them back above rivals Manchester United to the Premier League summit.
"We have a huge, demanding test,” Guardiola said on Friday ahead of their latest meeting. “How we play against one of the best teams on one of the biggest stages. How will they react after losing two games?
"I can imagine how intense, how aggressive and how committed they will be to not accept three defeats in four. That is why it is a good test for us.
"It is always difficult at Stamford Bridge. Most of the time I lose there. The stadium, the history of Chelsea in the last 20 years and because they are a really, really good team."
Pep Guardiola isn't about to lose his focus in the title raceGetty Images
Maurizio Sarri is likely to recall Jorginho to his side at the base of the midfield, while Fernandinho will continue to operate in much the same way for City.
While this game could set a new Premier League record for the most number of passes completed, only one manager has a set of players who are fully adjusted to his demands.
In the absence of De Bruyne and Aguero, this could prove to be the biggest test of Guardiola’s swashbuckling perfectionists, but Walker would happily surrender another clean sheet if it meant another three points come Saturday night. Achieve that, and you might as well hand the title to City now.