The Catalan’s side were written off after a slow start to the season but they are now just four points off the top of the table with a game in hand
Pep Guardiola is more than happy for Manchester City to remain in the shadows of this season’s Premier League title race.
The media spotlight will be focused squarely on Anfield this Sunday, as reigning champions Liverpool host surprise leaders Manchester United.
There is huge excitement and hype surrounding a top-of-the-table meeting between England’s two most successful clubs.
In reality, though, there are a huge number of teams involved in one of the tightest and potentially most exciting title races in recent seasons.
Just six points separate the top six sides and all have had inconsistent spells during an already draining, fixture-congested campaign played in empty stadiums because of the coronavirus pandemic.
For the past three seasons, when City and Liverpool went to become champions, they were virtually untouchable. At the same stage last season, Liverpool were 10 points clear and, two seasons ago, City had an 11-point lead.
However, 2020-21 has been characterised by bizarre results. City were routed at home by Leicester, Liverpool incredibly conceded seven at Aston Villa, while United were beaten 6-1 by Tottenham at Old Trafford.
City, though, have started to rediscover their best form, albeit without drawing much attention. A slow start coupled with a backlog of games meant they have only recently started climbing the table.
The first 11 weeks of the season were spent in the bottom half of the Premier League and they only moved into the Champions League top-four places for the first time this week following the midweek victory over Brighton.
However, anything other than a win for United on Sunday, and Guardiola’s side will be top of the Premier League on Wednesday night if they beat Crystal Palace on Sunday and follow that up with a win over Aston Villa in back-to-back games at the Etihad Stadium.
It would come as a surprise to some, given most pundits have got caught up in talk of United battling Liverpool for the title. But Guardiola is not in the least bit perturbed by the fact that City have been overlooked up until this point and insists he doesn’t use it as a motivational tool.
“I didn’t talk with the players about that but I think what has made the team confident and makes them positive for the next game is how they performed in the last one,” he explained.
“I don’t think the players are angry or upset because some people think that they are not contenders this season or that maybe United and Liverpool are better than us.
“This is not about us. It’s about the Newcastle game, where we played well after the West Brom draw. And when we won at Stamford Bridge, we played well. And then we went to United and we played well. And at Brighton, we played well.”
City have certainly started to show signs of the sort of consistency that led them to two successive title races under Guardiola.
They have won their last seven matches in all competitions and are unbeaten in 14 matches going back to the loss at Tottenham in mid-November.
Since that frustrating evening in north London, they have conceded just once in the Premier League – a deflected strike in the 1-1 draw with West Brom.
While they are not quite matching the emphatic scorelines that have made them England’s top scorers for the past three seasons, Guardiola is recognising the sort of hard work and commitment reminiscent of his side at their best.
“If you dream you want to be top of the league or you want to be in a better position when you don’t play good, you are not going to achieve it,” he added.
“I think this is the best way. I have the feeling that the players now, in every game, are committed to doing what they have to do, what we have done for many, many years. So, that gives us the confidence to keep winning games.”
Four successive Premier League victories is a long way short of the 18-match winning streak City put together during Guardiola’s first title-winning season, but his team now has an attractive run of fixtures which offers them the chance to heap the pressure on their rivals.
After Palace and Villa, City play bottom-two West Brom and Sheffield United followed by another lower-half side in Burnley.
While Guardiola will not look too forward ahead, this soft schedule could set them up perfectly for the trip to Liverpool at the start of February at a ground where City have won just once in 40 years.
But when asked whether it would suit City better for Liverpool or United to win this weekend, Guardiola was clear about where his focus lay.
“Crystal Palace! The only thing I want is I want to beat them,” he insisted. “The rest, honestly, I don’t care.”