A defining spell in quintuple-chasing Manchester City’s grinding Premier League defence begins with their fraught trip to Crystal Palace.
Selhurst Park’s reputation as a graveyard for title aspirations is well established. Current leaders Liverpool’s hopes met a definitive end there in 2013/14 – little more than a week after the infamous ‘slip’ match against Chelsea whose approaching five-year anniversary is being marked with Sunday’s repeat – and the Blues’ went the same way a season later.
Pep Guardiola must also avoid a repeat of the Eagles’ shock 3-2 raid on Etihad Stadium in December, while managing resources ahead of an intense fortnight of action across two competitions.
Here are the talking points:
GUARDIOLA’S MIND GAMES
An uncomfortable record has been repeated and nauseam since City went down 1-0 at Spurs in Tuesday’s continental first leg.
Guardiola last won an away Champions League quarter or semi-final back in 2011, against Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk.
This statistic, plus the four changes made for the trip to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, has been weaponised in the wake of a first defeat since January 30 in all competitions.
‘Overthinking’ was to blame, a trope that is dusted off by critics on the rare occasion Guardiola slips up. Never mind the genius that propelled City to a perfect 14-successive victories beforehand…
What could be of more pertinence was Germany midfielder Ilkay Gundogan’s suggestion – shot down by Guardiola – that City were “too nervous” on this grand occasion.
Extrapolate this viewpoint to the top flight and another stat becomes pertinent.
Guardiola was last involved in a legitimate title fight back in 2011/12, when Jose Mourinho’s free-scoring Real Madrid bumped Barcelona into second spot.
2013-16’s trio of Bundesliga crowns at Bayern Munich were claimed with an average points margin of 13. City got nowhere close in 2016/17, then broke every record standing last season.
Guardiola’s brilliance means he is out of practice when it comes to a two-team fight to the finish.
If the pressure of a big European night truly can get to him and his “nervous” players, could this clash with Palace with the finishing line in sight? We’ll see.
WHERE EAGLES DARE?
Attention on Sunday will, inevitably, be focused nearly 300 kilometres away from south London.
The Merseyside clash between Liverpool and Chelsea is layered with drama. But both City, and for their part Palace, can ramp up the tension even further in a match that will finish 30 minutes before kick-off in the day’s grandstand clash.
A trio of points for the Blues will put them, temporarily at least, back on top of the standings. If Palace emerge victorious, a glorious opportunity to end 29 years of hurt will abound for Jurgen Klopp’s men.
City are winless in their last two meetings with Roy Hodgson’s men. With top flight clashes to come next week against both Tottenham Hotspur – the same side for whom they are battling for a berth in the Champions League semi-finals – and Manchester United, a third could prove fatal in the title scrap.
Guardiola, however, should not be unduly concerned. Palace have triumphed in just four of their preceding 16 games at Selhurst, plus Hodgson labelled last weekend’s 1-0 victory at Newcastle United as putting his side “virtually over the line” in regards to avoiding relegation.
October’s pulsating 2-2 draw with Arsenal is, furthermore, the only this time they’ve not lost on home soil to top-six opposition this campaign.
📸 See how the lads have been preparing for the #CRYMCI game.— Crystal Palace F.C. (@CPFC) April 13, 2019
SERGIO’S NOT SPOT ON
This week’s narrative could have been changed.
Sergio Aguero stained his return to the City XI after two games away through injury with a weak 12th-minute penalty, comfortably stopped by Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
The miss represented the nadir of a poor return from the Argentina marksman. From a trio of attempts only the missed spot-kick was on target, while in 20 minutes on the pitch replacement Gabriel Jesus (12) only had six fewer touches.
This drab display has left Guardiola in a quandary. Would a start at Palace provide his star striker with essential minutes to gain full-match fitness, or risk an upset that may be terminal to hopes of retaining the title?
Olivier Giroud believes he and his Chelsea team-mates have nothing to fear when they come up against Virgil van Dijk in Sunday’s pivotal clash with Liverpool.
The Netherlands centre-back has earned plaudits for the way he has transformed a leaky defence into one that has the Premier League‘s best record this season, conceding just 20 goals in 33 games.
Van Dijk’s form has seen his reputation rise as he’s now considered one of the best defenders in Europe, but though Giroud acknowledged the Liverpool star’s brilliance he is confident Chelsea can beat Van Dijk and company on Sunday.
“I played against Van Dijk personally a few times and it has always been a tough position because he is very good and very strong, but I’ve scored a few goals playing against his teams,” Giroud said on Friday, as reported by Goal.
“The Netherlands when we played recently, but I won last year and scored at Stamford Bridge and scored the winner at the Stade de France against the Netherlands a few months ago. We don’t have to be scared and no matter who plays we will be 100 per cent focused on winning the game.
Chelsea’s France striker also believes team-mate Eden Hazard should win the end-of-season player of the year awards, and not frontrunners Van Dijk or Man City’s Raheem Sterling.
“I would say Eden Hazard [should win it],” Giroud said. “I think I cannot say [who I voted for], I would vote for Eden Hazard [if I could].”
The Reds are locked in a tense tussle with reigning champions Manchester City for the top-flight crown and it was this fixture five seasons ago that lives in infamy for their fans.
Steven Gerrard’s costly slip saw Demba Ba open the scoring at Anfield and send Chelsea on their way to a 2-0 win, with the trophy ultimately heading to Etihad Stadium and prolonging Liverpool’s long wait for a league championship.
REDS CAN’T LET THIS SLIP AGAIN
Liverpool can rise or fall as they stand on the precipice of a painful, unwanted and still very raw anniversary.
In a near identical situation five seasons ago, the Reds were on the cusp of winning the English title for the first time in 24 years when Chelsea rolled into town.
Jose Mourinho’s side – weakened ahead of a Champions League semi-final second leg showdown with Atletico Madrid three days later – were expected to be rolled over by a rampant Reds side on a 16-game unbeaten run and 11-game winning streak.
But an over-confident home side were subjected to their worst nightmare as a Mourinho masterclass and horrendous individual error from talismanic skipper Gerrard put the Blues on course for victory.
It’s two weeks shy of being exactly five years later and Liverpool are in another tussle for the title – it’s now been 29 years since they were champions of England.
In an ironic twist, title rivals City – just like they were five years ago – are again away at Crystal Palace on the same weekend. They have the tougher run-in, but possess the experience of having been here before and got over the line.
James Milner, while at City, is the only player in Liverpoo’s current squad to own a Premier League winners’ medal.
Gerrard, now infamously, screamed to his team-mates after a crucial victory over City at Anfield weeks prior to Chelsea’s visit five seasons ago “this doesn’t slip now”. You know the rest.
Is history doomed to repeat itself, or are Liverpool finally about to re-write history?
LIVERPOOL MENTALLY STRONGER
Speaking of the past, and the football Klopp has this version of the Merseysiders playing in 2018/19 appears more measured than the swashbuckling style Brendan Rodgers championed half a decade ago.
But this is not a criticism. They have added steel to their silk this term, even when compared to 2017/18.
Okay, so Liverpool might not have a forward player as devastating as Luis Suarez. Mohamed Salah would point to his haul of 32 league goals and 52 in all competitions last season and beg to differ, but he’s had his struggles this season, as well as shouldering a more creative burden, while Suarez was a pure and lethal finisher.
And they no longer have their iconic captain Gerrard – he and Suarez were a potent combination.
Now, Liverpool are a more well-oiled, all-round unit. They were prolific scorers last season (84) but this year they seem to be the whole package – they’re only nine shy of last term’s goals, but have conceded 18 fewer.
Sadio Mane is sharing the goalscoring burden with Salah and Roberto Firmino, while at the back Virgil van Dijk’s protracted arrival from Southampton has seen him morph into arguably the greatest centre-back on the planet.
Alisson, between the sticks, is also a more dependable custodian and stands head and shoulders above previous incumbents of the No1 jersey, Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet.
They were naive and over-confident five years ago. This year, this Liverpool finally look ready to end the Kop’s coveted wait for a 19th league title.
HAZARD WARNING FOR HOSTS
But, just like Liverpool were guilty of doing five years ago, let’s not treat Chelsea as “the clowns” Mourinho accused the Liverpool title-expecting “circus” of framing his side into being.
The opening act to the main event – Liverpool’s coronation.
This time, Chelsea won’t be weakened, they won’t have 41-year-old Mark Schwarzer in goal and their main men on the bench. True, they’re out of sorts this season, but are in a fine run of form under Maurizio Sarri, having lost just once in 10 games since being defeated by City in the Carabao Cup final at the end of February.
There’s also the small matter of having Eden Hazard spearheading their attack – his two-goal performance against West ham last time out suggests he is hitting form at just the right time – or wrong time, depending on which side of the fence you sit.
The Belgian is undoubtedly brilliant but has throughout his Blues career flitted in and out of form, while earlier in the campaign there was concern that his head had been turned too far towards Santiago Bernabeu as a summer move to Real Madrid looms.
But, for now, he is a Chelsea player and he is bang in form. His first goal against the Hammers was breathtaking and will be in with a shout for goal of the season.
Meanwhile, his statistics improved to 16 goals for the season – three behind Sergio Aguero – and 12 assists, putting him top of that chart.
That’s 28 goals and assists for the term – putting Hazard top of the list. He now has 85 goals in 240 Premier League games – surpassing Cristiano Ronaldo and drawing level with Fernando Torres.
Hazard is on fire. Liverpool, you have been warned.