Ahead of their final game of the year, Manchester City find themselves in a very difficult situation after successive defeats at the hands of Crystal Palace and Leicester City.
It was a nightmare for Pep Guardiola as he watched the hosts take all three points from the fixture in a comfortable fashion.
Bernardo Silva opened the scoring in the 14th minute before Marc Albrighton levelled the scores five minutes later. Ricardo Pereira scored a stunner in the 81st minute and it proved to be the winner on the night. Fabian Delph was sent off in the death to pretty much sum up City’s night.
We take a look at some of the talking points.
PROBLEMS MORE SERIOUS THAN THEY APPEAR
Leicester City could have been up by three goals at half-time had Jamie Vardy and James Maddison converted their chances. Despite conceding just 15 goals this season, the defending champions are showing vulnerability at the back.
In the defeat against Crystal Palace, defensive mistakes by Kyle Walker led to two of the three goals which were scored. Danilo was tested at right-back against Leicester City, but he failed to make a case for himself. The backline found it hard to break the press at times and looked extremely shaky and deprived of confidence.
For the first goal, Danilo was questionably high up the pitch and Delph made a mess of his positioning, allowing Albrighton massive space at point-blank.
A few minutes later, Vardy had a great chance to give the hosts a deserved lead but a combination of Ederson and Lady luck ensured parity.
A WELL-OILED MACHINE, BUT WITH A BLUNT FINISH
Yes, City are controlling games and dominating possession. Yes, Guradiola has some of the best forwards in the league at his disposal. Yes, the forwards are clinical and rarely out of form. However, City have not shown teeth in the final third for the last four games now and this one was no different.
The visitors did almost everything right until they entered the final third but failed to produce anything threatening thereafter. It’s true Guardiola is an advocate of playing it untill the last pass before finally nudging the ball into the net. More often than not, City overdid this and struggled to really threaten Kasper Schmeichel.
Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling were handed plenty of opportunities but they never really pulled the trigger at the right time. This lack of lucidity in front of goal provided the opposition with plenty of time to get players behind and guard the six-yard box. Hence, the visitors were wasteful on the counter too.
Also, the fact that most of City’s chances came from crosses into the box towards Sergio Aguero and Sane – who are not the tallest on the pitch – is something Guardiola must examine before the all-important clash with Liverpool next weekend.
FRENKIE DE JONG – NEED OF THE HOUR
Between a fragile backline and a toothless frontline lies a less faulty midfield. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva are doing well. Bernardo Silva has justified his status as an undisputed starter too. The fault seems to lie at the base position. At the age of 33, Fernandinho is still City’s linchpin, an irreplaceable chunk in their midfield.
Ilkay Gundogan has been filling in for the Brazilian but has barely done half a decent job. The hosts found it incredibly easy to glide past City’s midfield, with no Fernandinho to throw in those tactical fouls.
The Brazilian makes it hard for the opponents to transition and plays a crucial role in screening the fragile defence, something Gundogan has failed to produce. There is one player who could execute this role of distributing play across the pitch and screening the defence while out of possession, Frenkie de Jong.
The Dutchman has displayed these traits for the national team and Ajax consistently and has popped up as the need of the hour for the defending champions. Guardiola must definitely consider pushing for a transfer as soon as possible.
Benitez takes his Newcastle side to Anfield on Boxing Day with the Reds four points clear of City, who lost 3-2 at home to Crystal Palace on Sunday, and top of the table – a game before the halfway stage.
Jurgen Klopp’s men finished fourth at the end of the last campaign, 25 points adrift of the champions, but the Spaniard is tipping them to make a better fist of it this time around.
Asked if they are title favourites, he said: “Still it’s too soon, but I think both teams are a little bit ahead of the others. I haven’t seen the Manchester City game, but nobody was expecting that.
“But as I’ve said before, Crystal Palace, the three up front, you can buy them for £50million, each one, so it sometimes can happen when teams have good players to play on the counter-attack.
“But still I can see Liverpool, I can see Manchester City ahead of the others. Liverpool are in form, they are doing really well and it will be a very difficult game for us.”
Benitez famously guided Liverpool to Champions League glory in 2005 courtesy of a remarkable fightback against AC Milan in the final in Istanbul, and he believes Klopp has a stronger squad at his disposal than he had at the time.
Asked if the current Liverpool side is the best since his, he replied: “It’s difficult to say ‘team’ because always in my head is that when we beat Real Madrid and Barcelona, there was a great team, but what I think is they have the best squad.
“When you spend money, you bring in better players – they have signed Fabinho, spent some money on (Naby) Keita, but they kept (Jordan) Henderson and they kept (Georginio) Wijnaldum, so you keep the good players and you bring in new players, so the squad is better.
“What does that mean? That in different competitions, different games, still you have a strong team on the pitch.”
The Magpies will arrive on Merseyside desperate to improve upon a tepid display in Saturday’s goalless home draw with lowly Fulham, which left them five points clear of the relegation zone.
Hammers boss Pellegrini is set to be without 10 players when they travel to the south coast on Thursday.
Fabian Balbuena and Javier Hernandez were injured during Saturday’s 2-0 defeat by Watford to join Lucas Perez, Marko Arnautovic, Jack Wilshere, Andriy Yarmolenko, Manuel Lanzini, Ryan Fredericks, Carlos Sanchez and Winston Reid on the casualty list.
But Pellegrini maintains he has a squad capable of bouncing back at St Mary’s and marking the halfway stage of the season with a victory.
“We need to play a lot of games in December, seven games, then after that six more in January,” he said.
“Unfortunately for us we have eight players without the option to return soon. Maybe Marko Arnautovic can be, I don’t know about against Southampton, but soon.
“We need to see about the other two, Hernandez and Balbuena. So that’s a big problem, but we need to trust the squad and try to make a good rotation.
“We have the last game of the first part of the season and if you told me after we lost our first four games that we can finish with 27 points, I’d think that would be a good first round for us.
“We know we have to play a good game against a team that have won their last two games. We will try to recover the points that we lost at home. We will try to add three points more to get to 27.
“This squad demonstrated already that we have the character to improve after that slow start.
“We now try to think in the next game that we will be able to do it. We don’t have any doubts about that.”
Andy Carroll, who has made four substitute appearances since returning from ankle surgery, is likely to start his first match of the season in attack.