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The Chilean admits the free-scoring Reds will pose a stern test when the two sides meet at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday, while he looks set to keep faith in goalkeeper Joe Hart

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini says his side will face a “very difficult” challenge in the shape of Liverpool and Premier League top scorer Luis Suarez when they face each other on Boxing Day.

The Etihad Stadium outfit emerged as 4-2 winners in a lively contest against Fulham at Craven Cottage on Saturday afternoon, moving into second place in the league table, just a point behind the Reds.

City host Brendan Rodgers' table-topping side on Thursday and Pellegrini is anticipating a fierce battle between the two sides, though does not believe the fixture will decide the destination of the title.

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When asked how difficult facing Liverpool and Suarez will be, the Chilean replied: “Very difficult, because Liverpool are a very good team and Suarez is in a very good moment.

“But I think that this Premier League, and we are only just finishing the first half, will not only be about Liverpool and Manchester City – five or six teams will fight it until the end.”

Joe Hart returned to the side for the first time since October, replacing Costel Pantilimon who had played the previous seven matches, and Pellegrini says he was impressed enough with the England No.1 to keep him in the side.

“We don't know what will happen in the future,” said the 60-year-old. “Today Joe played and he did well. We will see what will happen. Every match we can play with a different starting XI. At the moment Joe will continue playing in the next game.

“He deserves to continue. When I put Pantilimon in the starting XI, I spoke with Joe and he understood perfectly that he was not in a good moment. But he's working very hard and I thought that he deserved another opportunity and he did well.”

Defeated Fulham boss Rene Meulensteen was pleased with his side's performance against City, despite suffering their eighth defeat in nine games, and thinks Pellegrini's charges will be in the thick of the title battle come the end of the season.

“If you look to the performances that we have put in in terms of energy, the positiveness we've had, we should never be in the position that we are,” said the Dutch coach.

“They [City] are definitely going to be strong contenders because of the squad that they have, the variety, the creativity. They've got strength up front, and a world-class striker in Sergio Aguero, who was not even playing today.

“They're a team that will always create chances and I am sure they will push for the title.”

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