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pep in the step With Kevin De Bruyne calling the shots, City have rewound to something approaching their irresistible best


Kevin De Bruyne has helped to re-ignite Manchester City's title charge

Kevin De Bruyne has helped to re-ignite Manchester City's title charge

Kevin De Bruyne has helped to re-ignite Manchester City's title charge

Look at them all. Liverpool, certainty of their execution faltering, defensive options made threadbare by freakish misfortune, no longer look immune to gravity, nor, untouchable.

Manchester United, though their performances veer towards bipolar and despite eviction from the Champions League, have startled even their own tribe by advancing to a January rung unfamiliar since the Ferguson supremacy.

Pep Guardiola’s City, while the passing years and a creaking body decommission the great Sergio Aguero, find a way to surf the wave of a powerfully ominous midwinter surge.

With Harry Kane and Son Heung-min a record-breaking study in telepathy, Spurs are compelling the court of public opinion – that deemed Jose Mourinho time-expired – to reconsider its verdict.

Leicester, Everton and Aston Villa, all exceeding expectations, the latter wildly, find themselves in unexpected terrain. If a title challenge remains fanciful, a seat on the Champions League express no longer appears an impossibility, certainly not for the title-winning 2016 wonders.

A compelling struggle for Premier League dominion is unspooling against the eerie, downbeat backdrop of empty stadia, Covid jitters and a sanity-shaking lockdown.


Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min celebrates

Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min celebrates

Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min celebrates

Days out from Liverpool hosting United in what might be the Old Firm’s most significant duel since Old Trafford’s omnipotent Glaswegian laird abdicated eight years ago, it is not easy to identify English football’s alpha male.

Liverpool, impeccable standard setters for 18 months and a mighty force apparently poised to separate themselves from the rest of the field when hitting Crystal Palace for seven just 22 days ago, have hit a concerning flat spot.

One goal in three games (and just two points from nine) against off-Broadway opponents (West Brom, Newcastle and Southampton) is, of course, far too tiny a sample size from which to extrapolate sufficient evidence to remotely sustain any conclusion of dangerous decline.

The question is how many blips and setbacks constitute a life-threatening disease?

Jurgen Klopp can still summon the awesome firepower of Salah and Mane; Alisson as a last defensive line is as reassuring as the battlements of a medieval castle; Thiago, fit at last, is ready to unleash his lock-picking creative talents.

Six of the last eight Premier League champions were top at Christmas, as Liverpool were a fortnight ago (although it was the respective Anfield classes of 2013/14 and ’18/19 who failed to convert December promise into springtime gold).

In slaking a 30-year domestic thirst, in conquering Europe, Liverpool have become a byword for the highest standards. Yet, a cursory visit to their treatment room offers an eloquent explanation as to why these are unsettling times for Klopp.

Injury has thieved the typically upbeat but lately edgy father of the Kop of three elite centre-backs, notably the towering, irreplaceable foundation stone, Virgil van Dijk.

Diogo Jota’s eye-catching autumnal eruption was simultaneously silenced by an untimely mischief to his fitness.

Liverpool have already dropped more points in 17 league fixtures (18) than in the entirety of either of the last two 38-game campaigns (15 and 17).

Though they are top of the league, an alternate table – one constructed on points dropped sees the champions trail United (15) and City (16), with Leicester, Spurs, Everton and Villa (all 19) tugging at their shirt tails.

Opponents, familiar with the perils of Liverpool’s lethal counter-attacking menace, are defending deeper; with Trent Alexander-Arnold not at full-steam (he conceded possession a PL seasonal record 38 times against Southampton), the supply line has become clogged and inefficient.


 Jurgen Klopp has been uncharacteristically tetchy of late

Jurgen Klopp has been uncharacteristically tetchy of late

Jurgen Klopp has been uncharacteristically tetchy of late

Thiago's return to fitness is a timely blessing. But, with Klopp unlikely to apply a transfer window sticking plaster in a time of Covid finance, it is his shopworn centre-back options that most ominously threatens a successful title defence.

United, to the delighted surprise of their ultras, went top by beating Burnley last night.

If Roy Keane mocked any equivalence between Bruno Fernandes and Eric Cantona in the wake of United's tame Carabao Cup exit to City, the Portuguese’s remarkable numbers – 27 goals and 17 assists in 46 appearances – since his arrival, have been undeniably transformative.

United remain inconsistent, capable of brilliance and destitution in the same 90 minutes.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, though clearly a generous and empathetic soul, simply doesn’t convince as an elite tactical coach; a self-created, distracting, shadow of negativity and division continues to pursue Paul Pogba.

The expensive recruitment and immediate mothballing of Donny van de Beek speaks of recruiting incoherence, though Edison Cavani brings elite-level know-how to attack if not to his social media offerings.

That United accumulated a greater harvest of points than City (66 to 65, both trailing Liverpool’s 77) over the calendar year of 2020 speaks of a resurrection of sorts.

And historic momentum – call it the misplaced spirit of the long Ferguson era of ascendancy – might even be reawakened were they to travel to Anfield as league leaders and escape with their red standard untattered.

But, for now, the oddsmakers listing of Old Trafford as the third most likely destination for the Premier League trophy (13/2) appears to be constructed on a bedrock of logic.

It is City (4/5), reanimated as a triumph of slick movement and again weaving gorgeous patterns, rather than Liverpool (12/5) who the bookies deem 2021’s chosen ones.

With Kevin De Bruyne re-announcing the credentials that make him the English game's most unanswerable talent, City have recently rewound to something approaching their irresistible 2018/19 selves.

Reasons to be cheerful: Five consecutive wins in all competitions (by an aggregate score of 12-2), consecutive road-trip dismantlings of Chelsea and United that ended a dismal away run against Big Six opposition and a 12-game, 50-day unbeaten run.

And if the fevered New Year English media acclamation of a born-again John Stones is hardly certain to stand the test of time, City at last seem strong at a point of post-Vincent Kompany weakness even as Liverpool are compelled to improvise at centre-back.

Next weekend’s aristocratic Anfield summit will draw the headlines, but City's friendly January (home games against Brighton, Palace, Villa and Sheffield United, with their only travels to struggling West Brom) offers an opportunity to develop killing momentum.

City, 11th at the start of December when some were questioning the merits of the two-year contract extension Guardiola had recently signed, might soon be looking down from a familiar vertiginous perch.

De Bruyne's genius is taken as the trump card in reducing the old firm dreams of Liverpool and United to ashes.

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Online Editors