Premier League: Pressure starting to build at the top of the table

John Roycroft wonders if a Liverpool win in the early kick-off this afternoon against Watford can add pressure on Pep Guardiola and Man City, who play later that evening.
Premier League: Pressure starting to build at the top of the table

Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold celebrates after the Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium, London. However, he picked up an injury that sees him out till at least the away match against Man City on April 10.  Picture: John Walton/PA Wire

TODAY'S early kick-off in the Premier League sees Liverpool come up against Watford, offering the Merseysiders the chance to go top of the table for the first time since the start of the season.

While a match against a relegation-threatened side always comes with the inherent dangers of battling a side fighting for survival, the odds strongly favour the Reds seeing off the Hornets, especially at home in Anfield.

Should Liverpool manage to complete the task, they will move two points beyond Manchester City in the table and put the kind of pressure on Pep Guardiola and City, they have not felt this season. Admittedly, it would only be for a couple of hours. As City will also face relegation-threatened opposition in the guise of Burnley, but this time, away from home at the three o'clock kick-off.

One should never underestimate the unseen pressure a successful early kick-off can have on the following teams. And it did play a significant role in Liverpool's struggles around Christmas time when they were the side trying to do catch up on City's victories earlier in the day.

Going first offers you the significant carrot of going clear of the pack, while it takes considerably more resources to build yourself up just to bring it back to all square or maintain the status quo with your nearest opponent.

Weakness

Adding to the pressure that City might face is their strange weakness against sides below the top six.

Against their nearest opponents, City have been imperious, a draw at Anfield back in October being their worst result. But playing lower-tier sides has caused them a range of difficulties in recent seasons.

By drawing at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace just before the international break, City continued that odd quirk of previous years.

City had 32 shots in their two matches against Palace this season yet failed to score any of them and took just one point.

Even Norwich City, the team with the lowest shot conversion rate in the Premier League this season, score on an average of six per cent of their attempts.

City have played eight matches against the sides just below the top six, yet have scored just six goals, while conceding eight, and have amazingly only won twice. As hard as it may be to believe, if there was a mini-league of City, Wolves, Tottenham, Aston Villa, Southampton and Palace, the current league leaders would be second from bottom.

And despite only dropping points in seven matches so far this season, Guardiola’s side have done so both home and away against three of the sides just under the current leaders.

Of course, City's averages improve again against the bottom sides, where Burnely resides, but most would agree that The Clarets are in that position to many's surprise, and if any side could extract themselves from the mire, Sean Dyche's side can.

Liverpool's Naby Keita celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the UEFA Champions League quarter-final. The Guinean is due back from injury for this afternoon's game. Picture: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Liverpool's Naby Keita celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the UEFA Champions League quarter-final. The Guinean is due back from injury for this afternoon's game. Picture: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Injury news

Meanwhile, for the games themselves, there are mixed messages for Liverpool on the injury front. The knee injury that saw Naby Keita pull out of Guinea’s friendly against South Africa appears to be minor, so it's likely he will be available for today's game. But the news is not so good for their influential full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is now expected to be unavailable until that vital Man City league clash in mid-April.

Andy Roberson and James Milner are both back after positive Covid tests.

Meanwhile, for Ibraham Konate, Joel Matip, Thiago Alcantara, and Roberto Firmino the final international break of the season has served as an opportunity to rest and recharge ahead of a busy run of fixtures.

For City, the Burnley game may have come too early for Ruben Diaz, who is battling to get back from a hamstring injury.

England and ManCity's John Stones, who missed England's friendly against Ivory Coast having left the camp as an injury precaution. Raising doubt he will be back in time for City's match against Burnley today. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.
England and ManCity's John Stones, who missed England's friendly against Ivory Coast having left the camp as an injury precaution. Raising doubt he will be back in time for City's match against Burnley today. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

Word that John Stones returned to Manchester early from the England camp threatens to throw a spanner in Pep Guardiola's plans to bolster his defence against Burnley using Stones. But City have proven, over numerous crises in personnel, that they are far from a one-man team.

Of course, all this is academic should Liverpool lose to Watford early on in the day. Neutrals and Liverpool fans would like to see this title contest roll on till the end of the season. But again, most would accept that Liverpool's season run-in looks the more difficult.

In reality, both sides should probably win today, leaving the pressure and mind-games, inevitably, building till the sides meet at the Etihad on April 10. Football fans can live with that.

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