Having reclaimed the top spot in the Premier League, Manchester City look to turn the screws on Liverpool as they try to move provisionally four points clear Saturday at the Etihad versus Watford.
Some will argue Liverpool had their chance to bury the reigning champions in January, squandering an opportunity to move 10 points clear with their 2-1 loss at the Etihad. Since that match, the only points Manchester City (23-2-4) dropped came in their 2-1 loss at Newcastle United on Jan. 29.
They have won five on the bounce since and moved ahead of Liverpool last weekend as they edged Bournemouth 1-0 before Liverpool played to a scoreless draw at Everton in the Merseyside derby. Pep Guardiola’s team is now one point ahead of Jurgen Klopp’s side and own a superior goal difference, but the title race still has nine matches to run its course.
And for City, there are still two other trophies to chase after winning the Carabao Cup. If the Cityzens are to complete a historic quadruple, the schedule will do them no favours. The upcoming international break after next week’s matches would mark the last time City would not play mid-week if they advance to the finals of those respective tournaments, and as dominant as City can be, they are being severely stretched in terms of depth.
The latest casualty was Kevin De Bruyne, who appears set for his third prolonged absence after being forced off in first-half stoppage time versus Bournemouth with a hamstring injury. Vital central midfielder Fernandinho continues to be sidelined with a knee injury, though there was good news against Bournemouth as Gabriel Jesus was a late run-out and again this week as centre back Aymeric Laporte returned to practice as he deals with a hamstring injury.
Guardiola is also still conservatively working fellow centre back John Stones to full speed as he played the first half against Bournemouth before making way for Vincent Kompany, and he is still operating with third-choice left back Oleksandr Zinchenko as both Benjamin Mendy and Fabian Delph are on the mend.
In some respects, it’s not only impressive City have won five on the trot in league play but also have recorded four consecutive clean sheets and carry a 439-minute shutout streak into this contest. They held Bournemouth without a shot while owning a staggering 82 percent possession at Dean Court.
“In the way we play, we play much much better,” Guardiola said after Saturday’s victory. “We want the league and we will be disappointed if that does not happen but we cannot forget the contender we face with Liverpool. Of course, we want to win the Premier League and I feel the players show me every single day they want to win it.
“But we have played nine-or-10 more games than Liverpool — that is a lot of minutes in our legs. We play in four competitions and we are still there. That’s why I’m so happy.”
This match also gives City the chance to put pressure on Liverpool to equal their result Sunday at home versus Burnley – no guarantee considering the Reds have dropped eight points in their last six league contests — by playing first. They will also gain a match in hand next week since the Manchester Derby had to be postponed for the FA Cup quarterfinal tie at Championship side Swansea City.
Yet for all the talk of how imperious City are, their opponents Watford (12-7-10) are quite capable of throwing a spanner into the works. The Hornets are locked in a battle of their own, trailing Wolverhampton for seventh on goal difference as the two sides are both in the FA Cup quarterfinals and could potentially claim the scraps of a Europa League qualifying round spot if they do not win England’s oldest trophy and either City or Manchester United do.
Watford have just two losses in their last 13 matches in all competitions (7-4-2) and showed their resolve by rebounding from a chastening 5-0 defeat at Liverpool by spoiling Brendan Rodgers’ return to the Premier League with a 2-1 victory over Leicester City at Vicarage Road on Sunday.
Troy Deeney took a goal early and Andre Gray left it late as he scored the winner in the 92nd minute. Gray’s goal was a bit of good fortune and smart play as Watford took advantage of a poor set of decisions by Leicester City, with the Hornets winning possession and Deeney sending Gray through to slot past Foxes keeper Kasper Schmeichel.
While running a two-track race is something new for Watford manager Javi Gracia, he has something Guardiola does not – a fully healthy squad that gives him the option of focusing on this match or perhaps saving players for their FA Cup quarterfinal at home versus Crystal Palace or simply maintaining the status quo.
“Today is a good day for me as I can tell you all my players are available for the next game,” Gracia told the club’s official website. “It is good news for us because it speaks well about all the people working around the team: the medical staff, all the workers in different departments are helping us to stay in the best condition for the competitions.”
The Watford boss is also pleased to have the selection headaches that come with his side’s improved play, with Gray pushing for a spot in the first XI despite a recent purple patch from Gerard Deulofeu that included a hat trick versus Cardiff City.
“It’s a very good option for us,” said Gracia of choosing who to pair with Deeney. “They played together at the beginning of the season, getting very good results. In the last game when they played together, Andre score the goal in the last minutes. In the other games, we have played other players, like Gerard Deulofeu, against Cardiff, and we scored five goals, with Deulofeu scoring a hat-trick. The most important thing is we have different players who are able to show what they can do.”
Watford are out to end a seven-match losing streak to Big Six sides since being Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 on the fourth match day of the season. They were on the short end of a 2-1 scoreline at Vicarage Road in December, though City bossed the match throughout as Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez scored on either side of halftime.
The Hornets got a lifeline on 85 minutes through Abdoulaye Doucoure but could not find an equaliser. City have won seven on the trot in league play and nine in a row in all competitions against Watford, and they are 9-2-0 against the Hornets in the Premier League era.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 3, Watford 0.