“Tomorrow it (the gap) will be seven and when we play against Man City it could be four,” said Jurgen Klopp on Saturday after being asked about the nine-point gap that had opened up between them and their – in theory at least – closest rivals. In Klopp’s eyes it had never been nine; he was already counting on a City victory at Southampton and entertaining the possibility that Thursday could bring an end to their unbeaten run.
“I’m really not an idiot,” he said, resisting calls to gloat about Tottenham’s defeat to Wolves. To Klopp, that was pretty much immaterial; he knows that Liverpool’s only real challenge comes from Manchester. It’s not only the bookies that make Spurs the rank outsiders; this is a two-horse race whatever the table suggests.
“We’re Man City…we’ll fight to the end,” sang the City fans as they watched their side take the lead through David Silva in an opening half-hour that showcased the best of this Pep Guardiola side, who played with confidence, impudence and persistence. Time and again they exploited Saints down the flanks and left them no way out of their own half through a crowded middle. If this was a City side falling apart after two consecutive defeats, they were hiding it incredibly well.
Then came seven minutes that showcased the very worst of City and their struggles at full-back, with Oleksandr Zinchenko showing all the poise of an opening week Strictly celebrity. Despite spending weeks training with professionals, nothing can hide the fact that they are essentially winging it, stumbling way out of their comfort zone. The Ukrainian was winging it and for a few minutes, it felt like his panic might be more powerful than City’s brilliance.
And yet this never seriously felt like another Leicester or Crystal Palace as this was now a City side fortified by the weather-beaten old guard of Fernandinho, Vincent Kompany and David Silva; they hit back quickly and decisively, with Raheem Sterling the catalyst for their dominance over a Saints side who then resumed their places on the edge of the box for a second half of damage limitation.
Guardiola had made changes and they were largely justified, not least the benching of Leroy Sane to push Sterling onto the left, from where he wreaked havoc. He was handed the gift of a teenage debutant right-back but it’s hard to believe that Cedric would have fared any better. The challenge is now on to repeat the trick against the might of Liverpool; they have too often had the beating of Sterling before the game has even kicked off.
Not often do we see @sterling7 play on the left, but he’s been absolutely outstanding. A constant menace to Saints.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) December 30, 2018
“What can we say when Liverpool keep nine clean sheets and score a lot of goals? We cannot compete with that in terms of comparing with them,” said a humble Guardiola before the trip to Southampton.
“So we look at ourselves, and tomorrow against Southampton, we have to do what we do, and try to win, and when that happens, everything comes back to a normal position.”
And that ‘normal position’ is very bloody exciting for the rest of us. Just as Klopp predicted, the gap is now seven points. By 10pm on Thursday, it could be four points. Or the gap could be so decisive that even the Liverpool manager will have to concede that only an idiot would dismiss it as immaterial.
For anybody but Liverpool fans, Sunday brought the perfect result to set up Thursday. Bring it on.