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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Liverpool beware! Man City and Chelsea ready to challenge for Premier League supremacy

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The Reds can be crowned champions this evening, but their brilliance in 2019-20 will force free-spending rivals to raise their game next season

So, all eyes on Stamford Bridge then.

After missing out on Sunday and Monday, sitting through Tuesday and moving to brink in fine style on Wednesday, will Thursday finally be the day for Liverpool?

The situation is a straightforward one. Jurgen Klopp’s team will be crowned Premier League champions this evening if Manchester City fail to beat Chelsea. After 30 years, the wait is almost over.

Almost.

Klopp insists he does not watch City games hoping to see Pep Guardiola’s side slip up. He did it once, he says; last season against Leicester, when Vincent Kompany’s bolt from the blue effectively ensured the title would remain at the Etihad Stadium. Never again.

The German will have a close eye on events down in west London tonight, however, and not only because City are Liverpool’s next opponents. 

He may well be watching the two teams best placed to challenge Liverpool’s dominance in the coming months and years. 

City, Klopp knows, will come again. Even stronger next time, too. 

“The only thing I realised when I watched their games is ‘how is it possible that anybody is 20 points ahead of this team?!’” he said on Tuesday ahead of Liverpool’s emphatic 4-0 win over Crystal Palace. “That is unthinkable, actually.”

Klopp’s respect for City is absolute. Guardiola’s men may be 23 points adrift of the Reds, and as close to the middle of the table as they are the top, but they remain a winning team; a special side made up of special footballers, with a special manager at the helm too. 

The Carabao Cup is already in the bag, they are strong favourites to retain the FA Cup, while it will take a very good side to deny them a first Champions League success too. Domestic treble winners last season, they are on course for another trophy-laden season this time around.

It is to Liverpool’s immense credit that they have been able not only to keep pace with such a side, but to overtake them in such spectacular fashion. City dropped points in their second league game of the campaign, a home draw against Tottenham, and have been unable to claw their way back since. The Reds, with 28 wins from 31 matches, have simply sailed off into the sunset.  

That is the standard Liverpool have set. Klopp, however, will know that not only is it difficult for any team, even one as driven as his, to maintain such standards, but that the Reds’ dominance will force those left behind to re-evaluate, rebuild and return.

A rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes. 

City’s strength is such that it is impossible to imagine another campaign of such inconsistency. Guardiola’s men have outscored Liverpool and produced several displays of devastating brilliance but, remarkably, have failed to win more than three successive league games. They have lost home and away to both Wolves and Manchester United, failed to find a way past Spurs, been beaten at bottom club Norwich and dropped points against both Newcastle and Crystal Palace. It has been very un-Guardiolalike.

There will, surely, be changes at the Etihad this summer. Guardiola will seek to plug the defensive gaps which have undermined his team’s brilliant attacking play. At least one big-name centre-half will be signed, while it would be a surprise if he did not seek to replace Leroy Sane, who appears bound for Bayern Munich . Even a potential Champions League ban will not curb City’s spending. 

Chelsea, meanwhile, provide an intriguing sub-plot. Frank Lampard’s men did not come close to mounting a title challenge this season – they are 35 points off Liverpool and a dozen behind City – but there is a feeling within the game that something is stirring down at the Bridge. 

Lampard is certainly assembling an impressive young side, and after serving a transfer ban, Chelsea suddenly look ready to spend – and spend big. 

They have already landed Hakim Ziyech from Ajax, while their capture of Timo Werner from RB Leipzig is significant. Werner had been firmly on Liverpool’s radar, but the Reds were unwilling (or unable) to take the plunge financially once the Covid-19 crisis hit. 

Chelsea, it appears, have no such concerns. Lampard is keen to add Ben Chilwell, the Leicester and England left-back , and Bayer Leverkusen star Kai Havertz before the summer is out. Both players have, like Werner, been monitored closely by Liverpool in the past.

Add those to the likes of N’Golo Kante, Jorginho, Cesar Azpilicueta and Mateo Kovacic, as well as rising stars Mason Mount, Reece James, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Tammy Abraham and Christian Pulisic, and Chelsea look in better shape, squad-wise, than most.

They certainly caught Liverpool’s attention with an impressive display against them in the UEFA Super Cup in Istanbul back in August, while it was they who ended the Reds’ FA Cup run at Stamford Bridge in March – albeit on a night when Klopp rotated his team heavily. 

The promise is there, for sure, but they will need plenty more if they are to mount a title challenge, because the last four Premier League seasons show that the bar has been raised significantly.

Chelsea won the league with 93 points in 2016-17, City set a new record of 100 the following year, then just about held off Liverpool with 98 last season. This time around, the Reds are on course to become centurions themselves. So far, they have dropped only seven of a possible 93 points and, judging by their win over Palace, remain as hungry as ever.

Consistency is king. It is the reason Klopp’s men are so far clear, why City, Chelsea and the rest were also-rans before they had unwrapped their Christmas presents. The league leaders do not always sparkle, but they usually find a way to win. While others sleep, Liverpool get their work done. And when they do sparkle, nobody can live with them. 

Now, though, their challengers will surely awaken. They will have to.

There will be two of them wearing blue next season, one suspects.

Bring it on. 

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