Key battlegrounds: How one of closest Premier League title races in history could be won and lost

With just five games to go and a mere point between them, it’s almost impossible to separate Manchester City and Liverpool. They are two clubs with superstar managers, brilliant squads, excellent home records, and Champions League final ambitions. Here we look at the crucial factors that could make all the difference…

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England v Spain semi-final exploits

On paper, Manchester City face the tougher task against 13-times European champions Real Madrid. The La Liga champions-elect arrived at the Etihad in buoyant mood now they’re just one win away from reclaiming the title and currently leading toiling Barcelona by 15 points. But there was nothing for City to fear as their head-to-head record is all square, with two wins, two draws, and seven goals each in six encounters.

City will take heart from edging it the last time they faced off during the Covid-hit 2019/20 season, winning 2-1 in both legs of their last-16 tie (4-2 on aggregate). Real might be in impressive form but they are not infallible, having been caught cold by Moldovan minnows FC Sheriff in a shock defeat at the Bernabeu, resulting in one famous underdog victory in the group stage. Barca also laid down the law in the El Clasico just last month. City will be wary of the threat of dangerman Karim Benzema — who put holders Chelsea to the sword with his four goals in the quarter-finals — over the two legs. Keeping the Ballon d’Or hot tip quiet will be key to ensuring they get a massive boost ahead of the final league push.

… Part II

Liverpool welcomed Villarreal last night in what was the side’s first Champions League meeting. Although the Reds dumped the Yellow Submarine out of the 2016 Europa League semi-finals by winning 3-1 on aggregate, Jurgen Klopp’s men were determined to avoid another first-leg defeat that could lead to a league slump this time around.

Villarreal may currently sit seventh in La Liga, but they’ve been this season’s Champions League surprise package, going from strength to strength in Europe since lifting the Europa League trophy last term. They stunned the likes of Man United, Juve, and recent winners Bayern Munich to reach the semis for the first time in 16 years. Although the Reds go into the game on a high after winning the Merseyside derby 2-0 at the weekend, it might not be as straightforward as fans believe for six-times winners Liverpool to make it to a third Champions League final in five seasons.

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European hangover?

While talk of suffering a European hangover is often exaggerated, it remains something to be wary of. Liverpool resume league duty at ninth-placed Newcastle in the lunchtime game on Saturday, which has been a bone of contention for Klopp since their request for a kick-off time change was turned down by the Premier League. But the Reds boss can console himself with the fact that his men won 3-2 at St James’ Park after beating Barca in the first leg of their last Champions League semi-final appearance in 2019 before going on to become kings of Europe.

City, meanwhile, are away to lowly Leeds in an evening game that seems a favourable fixture after a tiring European clash. The league leaders may have thrashed the Whites 7-0 last December but the newly-promoted side were a thorn in their side last season as they followed up their 1-1 draw with a shock 2-1 win at the Etihad. Guardiola’s men will also want to avoid a repeat of the slip-up they suffered that campaign when they lost to Chelsea immediately after dumping PSG out of the semi-finals.

Run-in history

City have won four out of the last five titles and were runners-up to Liverpool during their historic win in 2020. However, the last time the Sky Blues beat the Reds to the championship by a solitary point in 2018/19 they both won their final five games. The damage was done earlier that season as Liverpool were held to seven draws — including the stalemate with City before suffering a narrow 2-1 defeat to their big rivals. Klopp’s men have also drawn seven games so far this season. Could it be a bad omen?

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Star strikers

If leaders City were to slip up in the run-in, sharp-shooters Liverpool can capitalise on their superior goal difference of 63 strikes to 59. The Premier League’s top scorer Mohamed Salah continues to outshine the competition with 22 goals and 13 assists compared to the Sky Blues’ leading men, Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez, who are tied on 11 goals each. While Diogo Jota (15) and Sadio Mane (14) are equally reliable in front of goal for the Reds.

Much has been made of the fact that City lack a prolific striker and Guardiola was right when he tearfully admitted they would struggle to replace Sergio Aguero last May. But what team wouldn’t feel the loss of a world-class frontman? Having goals come from all over the pitch has certainly softened the blow, but during the closest title race in years, attackers can make all the difference. Step forward Gabriel Jesus.

The Brazilian four-goal hero certainly wasn’t distracted by any transfer speculation as he added to his strike against Liverpool earlier this month by inspiring City to a 5-1 win over Watford at the weekend. Jesus is rising to the occasion by finding form at the precisely the same time as almighty De Bruyne is peaking at the end of the season, with his four goals and the same number of assists in recent outings. It’s a tantalising, and most likely, unstoppable combination.

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