“You have to be perfect,” Jurgen Klopp bluntly offered. “And if you’re not perfect, you have to hope Manchester City are not perfect.”
Pep Guardiola’s men were far from flawless at Arsenal, outplayed and fatigued on Saturday, yet they still exited the Emirates Stadium with three points.
So Chelsea and Liverpool primed for battle against each other to try and bite into City’s lead at the summit with a slight shrugging of the shoulders – “what can you do?” – and a heavy tinge of “what do we have to lose?”
An exhilarating affair followed at Stamford Bridge, decorated by glorious goals from Mohamed Salah and Mateo Kovacic, with the other two scorers Sadio Mane and Christian Pulisic fortunate to have still been on the pitch.
A contest that was in danger of being dominated by a lengthy list of those not present instead became a celebration of breathless football by those involved. It was an epic for the ages, but the most satisfied viewer will have been Guardiola.
Fun and furious and fast and flowing do not win titles in the era of his City. The hosts allowed their opponents to dart into a two-goal lead, before the visitors so seamlessly let their cushion evaporate in the space of four minutes.
Neither could have claimed to control large swathes of the encounter and neither looked certain to win.
A lack of mistakes and game management isn’t the stuff to snuff City out, which both Klopp and Thomas Tuchel well know.
The Chelsea manager described the defending champions as a “winning machine”, while his counterpart circled they “don’t panic and can do ridiculous things, like win their last 15 games or whatever”.
Both men had interestingly referenced their selection posers in contrast to Guardiola pre-match, with the City boss slicing through that, saying his squad have also been down to their “bare bones” due to the virus.
The combined absentee list at Stamford Bridge could have made some XI, with Klopp – recovering from Covid – as its manager. Alisson, Joel Matip, Roberto Firmino and Timo Werner also sat out due to the illness, while Andy Robertson served the final fixture of a three-game ban.
Reece James, Ben Chilwell, Andreas Christensen, Thiago, Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino were sidelined, with Romelu Lukaku missing due to foot-in-mouth disease.
Tuchel had feared the striker’s explosive interview would cloud Sunday’s showpiece because discussion around it got “too big, too noisy so close to the match”.
He need not have feared as a clash of thunder and lightning reduced Lukaku’s botched apology to Inter Milan, which will no doubt be followed by an “I’m sorry” to his current club, as a footnote.
It also, however, underlined that neither Chelsea nor Liverpool are of major concern to City at the moment nor on their level of getting over the line.
The Merseysiders, in truth, have done excellently to compete given the unlimited resources of both: Chelsea and City have the luxury of disciplining their £100million men Lukaku and Jack Grealish after all.
Guardiola will also not be losing as much sleep over the African Nations Cup, with only Riyad Mahrez departing for the tournament.
Liverpool must figure out how to stay within range at the top without the world’s current best in Salah as well as Mane and Naby Keita.
Chelsea will be minus the decisive Edouard Mendy, who saved from both the Egypt and Senegal forwards on Sunday.
Improving game management without key men will top the agenda for Tuchel and Klopp while City continue to top the table.
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