How Manchester City’s procession to the title could still stutter

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Manchester City made a real statement of intent on Sunday afternoon as Pep Guardiola broke his Anfield hoodoo in some style.

His side demolished the reigning champions 4-1 on Merseyside to take a five-point lead at the top of the Premier League table. They even have a game in hand, too. 

It looks for all the world as though City are poised to reclaim their crown, but there are still issues on the horizon that could be a cause for concern. 

Here, Sportsmail takes a look at the areas that could trip up the league leaders, and why their procession is not as clear cut as it may seem. 

TOUGH RUN AHEAD

Manchester City will be buoyant after finally coming out on top of what has been a notoriously difficult fixture for the club historically.

City had not won away at Liverpool since Nicolas Anelka scored a stoppage-time winner in May 2003, but the near-eight-year wait was ended in some style as Jurgen Klopp’s men were swept away. 

After tackling one tricky fixture, City will be confident of matching anyone they come up against in the top flight.

But that belief will be thoroughly put to the test over the course of their next five matches in the league. 

City face Tottenham next in the Premier League and have a tough run of fixtures coming up

City face Tottenham next in the Premier League and have a tough run of fixtures coming up 

Up next is a clash with Tottenham on Saturday, a fixture that has caused plenty of anguish and heartache in recent years for Pep. 

Away trips to Everton and Arsenal then follow, before facing an in-form West Ham side at the Etihad. After all that, there is the small matter of a Manchester derby, too. 

It is a run of fixtures where full points would be an incredible return, no matter how irresistible they currently look. A false step or two, and the title race could be back on.  

FIGHTING ON FOUR FRONTS

Not only has Guardiola got his eyes fixed on the Premier League prize – he also has another three competitions in which City are still going strong.

Sprinkled among the tricky run of league fixtures coming up are a series of FA Cup and Champions League bouts – not to mention the small matter of a League Cup final. 

Swansea City is next up for Pep’s men this week in the FA Cup fifth round – one they would be expected to win and book a place in the last eight. 

Pep Guardiola and his side are still battling on four fronts and have a hectic schedule ahead

Pep Guardiola and his side are still battling on four fronts and have a hectic schedule ahead

There is then the double header against Borussia Monchengladbach in the Champions League, with the last-32 tie kicking off this month. 

While both look eminently winnable to a full-strength City side, the fixture pile-up will stretch the squad to its limits. 

Fatigue is something they will be wary of, and difficult to manage with such an important run of matches coming up, all against capable opponents. 

City face Borussia Monchengladbach in the last 16 of the Champions League later this month

City face Borussia Monchengladbach in the last 16 of the Champions League later this month

FORWARD LINE ISSUES

One of the more remarkable features of Sunday’s Anfield triumph was scoring four times without a recognised striker on the pitch.

Ilkay Gundogan, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden took up the mantle in front of goal, and City’s midfielders have been forced to do this on a number of occasions already this season. 

The absence of Sergio Aguero has been noticeable as he enters the final few months of his contract, while Gabriel Jesus just has not been able to fill the void left by his fellow South American’s injury and fitness issues. 

Sergio Aguero has struggled for fitness this season, leaving City with limited forward options

Sergio Aguero has struggled for fitness this season, leaving City with limited forward options

Jesus has scored just four times in 14 starts this season, a disappointing return for a centre forward leading the line for the league leaders.

It is this kind of form that has increased speculation over City’s summer movements, with reports suggesting the club are looking to Romelu Lukaku to fill the void left by Aguero.   

City have been relying on a front three consisting of no out-and-out goalscorer, with Phil Foden playing centrally on Sunday, and Riyad Mahrez having taken up a similar berth against West Brom in their 5-0 last month. 

As long as the midfield can keep firing, Guardiola will not care a jot. But a lack of options up top could prove a problem as squad rotation becomes more of a necessity in the relentless months ahead. 

KEEPING THE BLUE WALL INTACT

The biggest fillip for City this season has been stumbling upon the formula for a formidable back-line pairing. 

John Stones and Ruben Dias were only paired together in early December by Guardiola, but in the run of 13 games since, they have 10 clean sheets. 

They have been immovable as a double act, with Aymeric Laporte forced to watch on from the bench during the recent run of 10 straight league wins in a row.  

John Stones and Ruben Dias have formed a formidable partnership at the back for Man City

John Stones and Ruben Dias have formed a formidable partnership at the back for Man City

Keeping both fit will be key to ensuring the form continues, and there will be a desire to avoid a return to their early season form. 

City looked out of sorts at the beginning of the campaign, illustrated by a shock 5-2 defeat at the hands of Leicester City, as well as unexpected draws with Leeds and West Brom.  

Stones and Dias did not line up alongside each other for any of those blips, and Guardiola will be looking to deviate away as little as possible from his preferred pairing. 

RIVALS CAN BOUNCE BACK 

City have propelled themselves to the top of the table on the back of one thing; consistency. 

A run of 10-straight victories in the top flight has seen them eat up the ground they had ceded at the beginning of the season and march into a formidable lead at the top.

But in such a topsy-turvy season, there is still scope for City’s nearest rivals to apply some pressure.

Manchester United are still their nearest challengers, and looked to be putting together a strong case as genuine contenders, until their recent blip.

Manchester United are five points behind City in the table, but are struggling for consistency

Manchester United are five points behind City in the table, but are struggling for consistency

An inexplicable defeat by Sheffield United at home was followed up by a morale-sapping draw at Old Trafford on Saturday as they conceded a stoppage-time equaliser against Everton.  

The gap now sits at five points – and could be as much as eight should City win their game in hand.

But should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side rediscover their killer instinct and apply some pressure, it remains to be seen whether Guardiola’s stretched side can handle the pressure.  

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