Pep Guardiola has said a few times that if his Manchester City side dropped points the Premier League title race would be “almost over”.
And, while the amount of games left may offer the Blues some hope that they can still overhaul Liverpool, optimism will not be the overriding emotion after a damaging defeat at a Newcastle side managed by former Reds boss Rafa Benitez.
It will feel as if the roof has fallen in on a campaign that promised so much. A wobble over Christmas saw City’s slender lead over Liverpool turn into a seven-point deficit, and with the Reds set to play Leicester on Wednesday it could now be restored to seven – effectively eradicating City’s victory when the two sides met early in January.
City have a couple of issues to address after their fourth defeat of the season but they can do nothing about their biggest problem: the fact that Liverpool just keep winning.
This was an opportunity to cut the Reds’ lead to just one point, an opportunity to pile even more pressure on a team that has got their fans dreaming once again.
And when City scored after 26 seconds it looked to all the world as if the juggernaut would just keep rolling on. City’s defeats over Christmas owed much to injuries in key areas and since then they had picked themselves up in impressive style, scoring 33 goals and conceding just two in their eight games leading up to the clash at St James’ Park – a final as Guardiola billed it on Monday.
Yet they could not capitalise on that early advantage, their moves breaking down thanks to sloppy passes or loose touches. Newcastle did not offer an awful lot going forward but their situation forced a bit of urgency and they made life hard for City by getting in their faces and reducing spaces.
They were still in the game at the hour mark and when City failed to clear their lines it was no surprise that Salomon Rondon made them pay.
That need not have been the end of the world for City, who threw on Gabriel Jesus for the expected onslaught, but on another Newcastle foray forward the hosts caught out Fernandinho, who feinted past one man inside his own box but did not expect the other, losing the ball and compounding his mistake by conceding a foul and a penalty.
Matt Ritchie slammed it home, and even with plenty of time left, it was game over.
Is it title race over, too?
It is surely too early to say that, but so far Liverpool have given no indication that they are going to slip up. They are winning the tight games and the open games, and the rest they seem to win comfortably.
Guardiola did not want to get too much into the idea that this game was an opportunity to crank up the pressure on the Reds but he did admit that City would basically need to win all of their games if they are to win the title.
He does not expect Liverpool to slip up. Jurgen Klopp does not expect City to slip up either, and in fact he even said he expected them to beat Newcastle.
As for Klopp, he has not got much wrong in the last few months and even when he does err it goes Liverpool’s way.
That’s just the way this season is panning out.