SOCCCER NOTES: Top of the table tangle as Guardiola's Manchester City steel for Klopp's lurking Liverpool as the EPL returns to action

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Can the top of the table stay this tight?

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Let’s hope the answer is yes. It’s a wonderful scene, five teams within three points of the lead as the Premier League returns from another boring International Break.

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One of the great modern rivalries of the Premier League kicks off the return to action as Liverpool visit Manchester City in the Fubo Game of the Week.

City have won three titles in a row and five of the last six. The one team breaking up that stretch? Liverpool in 2020. After a collapse last year, the Reds midfield rejuvenation has got them back on point. The importation of midfielders Dominik Szoboszlai , Alexis MacAllister and Ryan Gravenberch has seen Liverpool look like one of the best clubs in Europe again. 

But this is Manchester City. All that success has brought banality, they win games sometimes so easily, often looking bored doing so. But Liverpool always get the juices flowing. There’s been bad blood between the managers, the players and certainly fans. This game was moved from the late kickoff by police who fear clashes amongst fans, giving them less time in the pub before a match is seen as making it easier to handle.

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If Liverpool win, or even draw, then it keeps hope alive that this will be a memorable title race. But if City knock down their rivals, everyone fears the slow grind of City never relinquishing the lead.

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This game is a wonderful spectacle even for neutrals because it not only features plenty of the world’s best players, but the tactical matchup between Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp is fascinating. Klopp’s 11 wins against Guardiola is the most of any manager the Spaniard has faced. Conversely, Guardiola has beaten Klopp 10 times, more than any other manager who has opposed the German.

City striker Erling Haaland has scored 49 goals in 47 Premier League games, he’ll shatter the record for fastest to 50, held by Andy Cole who took 65 games to do it. However, there are only two clubs he’s never scored against Liverpool are one (Brentford is the other).

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The venue is vital. While the Etihad is often a library, City have won their last 23 games there, if they win on Saturday that equals the record set by Sunderland between 1890-1892. Yes, that’s correct, a 130 year record could be matched.

Liverpool had a collapse last season when their midfield crashed, but came on strong to finish the season and going back to last term, they’ve lost just one of their last 23 league matches (with nine men on a 94th minute own-goal against Tottenham in a game they had a legitimate goal ruled out by VAR error).

While International breaks are horrendously dull (anyone enjoy that 1-1 draw between England and North Macedonia?) Liverpool are buoyed by the form of their attackers.

Mohammed Salah scored four times for Egypt against Djibouti, Luis Diaz scored twice in an emotional win over Brazil with his dad in the stands after being released from kidnappers, and Darwin Nunez scored a pair for Uruguay in a 3-0 win over Bolivia. There’s also Diogo Jota who had scored four goals in six games headed into the break, and of course Cody Gakpo.

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I can’t wait to watch this one as it is not only always a classic, it sets the table for the rest of the season.

2. Can Villa continue to disrupt the table?

Fourth-place Tottenham hosting fifth-place Villa is another match to keep your eye on.

Spurs were being lauded as the best story of the season as the last remaining undefeated team, but they’ve now dropped two in a row. They’re still just two points off the top, but the real shock of the season is Villa. They’re only one point back of Spurs and trail just City in goals scored (29 to City’s 32). Not Brighton, not West Ham, not Newcastle, but Villa are the ones looking to break up the ‘Big Club’ party. A win on Sunday would send shockwaves through the table.

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3. Can the embattled cash clubs continue to climb?

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The other one to watch is the between the two biggest-spenders in the land, another El-plastico with financially-infused Newcastle (7th) hosting mega-money Chelsea (10th). Newcastle sit six points out of the Top Four, but are coming off a disappointing loss to Bournemouth. Chelsea had an awful start to the season but battled back multiple times in a thrilling 4-4 draw with City before the break. Was that a one-off or are they finding real traction under new manager Maurcio Pochettino?

I’m expecting the home crowd to make the difference and Newcastle should stamp Chelsea’s progress back a bit.

4. What does Everton’s point deduction mean?

During the break, Everton were hit with a 10-point penalty for financial violations. The dropped points puts them second from bottom, but they’re still only two points off safety. This may well be irrelevant for Everton. They’d only lost once in their last five matches and with Luton, Burnley and Sheffield looking, frankly, dreadful, the Toffees should have enough to get well into the safety zone by season’s end. And they were never going to compete higher up the table anyway so the penalty is moot.

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The bigger question might be what does it mean for Manchester City, and Chelsea? Both clubs are under investigation for financial irregularities. And if Everton were docked 10 points for a single charge, what will City face with a staggering 115 charges against them? Chelsea haven’t seen formal charges yet but are under investigation.

My guess? The lawyers win, money wins, corruption wins and I’d be stunned if there’s any more than a slap on the wrist.

SATURDAY: Manchester City v. Liverpool; Burnley v. West Ham; Luton v. Crystal Palace; Newcastle v. Chelsea; Nottingham Forest v. Brighton; Sheffield United v. Bournemouth; Brentford v. Arsenal.
SUNDAY: Tottenham v. Aston Villa; Everton v. Manchester United.
MONDAY: Fulham v. Wolves.

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