If Manchester City are to retain their Premier League crown, Pep Guardiola is going to have to achieve something he has not yet done in his managerial career: win a top-flight league title from behind.
Last year, City led after just five rounds of fixtures, never relinquished that lead and were crowned champions with another five games to spare. It was the same at Bayern Munich, who would rise to the summit after no more than eight weeks and stay there for the remainder.
Even when up against Real Madrid at Barcelona, it was rarely a close run thing. Against Manuel Pellegrini’s 2009-10 Madrid, in the only genuine title race that Guardiola has won, his side led from late November. Madrid drew level on points briefly in March but a superior head-to-head record always kept Barcelona in front.
Meanwhile, in the only unsuccessful league campaigns of Guardiola’s managerial career to date – the 2011-12 season at Barcelona and in his first year at City – his side fell off the top of the table then did not return.
That Guardiola has never overturned a mid-season points deficit says more about the dominance of his title-winning teams than any intrinsic failing. He has never done it because he has rarely needed to. Yet he needs to now.
Tuesday’s shock defeat away to Newcastle United allowed Liverpool to extend their lead over the defending champions to five points. It is not insurmountable gap but if City are to defend their crown then Guardiola must successfully chase down a rival for the first time.
“A new challenge,” he said when this point was put to him, ahead of Arsenal’s visit to the Etihad on Sunday. “I prefer to be like last season but we knew that is exceptional. The satisfaction would be the same and especially if we are who we are. The players know it. They know exactly the way we are as a strong team and that is what we have to do.
“It would be nice [to win from behind] but these kind of questions ask me how satisfied I am going to feel when I still haven’t arrived at the end. I don’t know what I’m going to know, how I feel in two or three months.”
If City can take maximum points from Sunday’s game, a trip to Goodison Park on Wednesday night and from Chelsea’s visit to the Etihad next weekend, then there will be confidence that Liverpool can be caught.
For that to happen though City must improve dramatically on Tuesday’s performance at St James’ Park. They must also answer the questions that have surrounded their title defence since their first defeat of the campaign in early December.
City have lost four games in that time, more defeats than Barcelona suffered in the entire 2011-12 season when finishing as runners-up to Madrid. Unless they begin playing better, Guardiola believes the champions will not be able to take advantage of any Liverpool slip-up.
“If our level is [like] the last game, it doesn’t matter if [the gap is] five points, two points or one. We are not going to win,” Guardiola said on Friday. “Nothing changed. What we learn or we have to learn from the previous game for the next game.
“When we win, we always want to analyse the bad things we have done and the good things. When we lose in the way we lose, we have to do better in those situations. If we do, we will be there. If we don’t, we will shake the hand of the champion and try next season.”
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