Manchester City and Liverpool set stage for title fight at Etihad as both earn Premier League wins

The stage is set for a potentially decisive game in the Premier League title race next week as Manchester City and Liverpool both returned to Premier League action with victories ahead of their meeting at the Etihad Stadium next week.

Liverpool briefly jumped into top spot with a Diogo Jota-inspired 2-0 win over Watford but it did not take long for Manchester City to assure themselves of first place at Turf Moor, where Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne scored in the first 25 minutes. The top of the Premier League table ended the day as it had began with Pep Guardiola’s side a single point clear.

For both sides, there is the small matter of a Champions League quarterfinal first leg to negotiate before they meet on Sunday, but that promises to be a significant moment in the title race. There would still be enough time for either side to make up any gap that might emerge from their meeting at the Etihad but such is the remorseless pace both of these teams are making that it seems eminently possible they could win out in the seven matches that follow.

Certainly Liverpool’s recent track record suggests no losses are in sight, their victory in the day’s early kickoff was their 10th straight in the league. Jurgen Klopp’s side was made to work hard for their win against Roy Hodgson’s visitors, indeed had Juraj Kucka or Joao Pedro made the most of presentable chances either side of half time Watford may have found themselves returning home with a vital point in their bid to avoid the drop. 

Ultimately, however, Jota showed a predatory quality that the Hornets lacked as he flicked Liverpool into the lead with his league-leading fourth headed goal of the season, not bad for a 5ft8in striker. Slipping into the gap between right back Kiko Femenia and Christian Kabasele, the Portuguese forward was on hand to flick in an excellent cross by Joe Gomez, who had been tasked with filling in on the Liverpool right flank with Trent Alexander-Arnold only deemed fit enough for a place on the bench after missing England duty.

Jota also drew the only save of the game from Ben Foster in the first half, the visiting goalkeeper making himself big enough to block the snapshot when the ball broke to the Liverpool striker in the area. For the most part, however, the hosts were made to work exceedingly hard by a Watford side that look greatly improved from the disorganized rabble that had been crushed 5-0 by the Reds earlier this season. With Leeds and Brentford to come at Vicarage Road in their next two matches Roy Hodgson will believe he has a chance of keeping his side in the Premier League.

The Hornets looked like they might be able to nick a point with a late charge as time wore down but an increasingly nervy Liverpool were handed a way to rubber stamp the points in the 89th minute. VAR spotted Kucka wrestling with Jota at a corner, hauling the forward to the ground to hand Fabinho a chance to secure the points. A firmly struck effort into the top corner took him to 24 penalties scored and one missed for his career and ensured that Liverpool topped the table, even if only for a moment.

Only by the standards that Liverpool have been setting could City be accused of wobbling — they have dropped just seven points since the start of November — and they showed precious little sign of nerves getting to them away to Burnley. De Bruyne opened the scoring with just over four minutes on the clock, volleying firmly into the far corner after Raheem Sterling had teed him up off a Rodri chip.

Sterling would get his second assist soon after, driving to the byline to cut back for Ilkay Gundogan to roll in his 51st Premier League goal. City might have had more — Gabriel Jesus hit the post in the second half — but they seemed equally concerned with preserving their energy for the tasks ahead of them. That is not just their two meetings with Liverpool (the two sides meet in the FA Cup semi final the following week) but the European quarterfinal with Atletico Madrid that bisects those games. With so many vital games ahead in their chase for silverware on multiple fronts.

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