Premier League

City and Liverpool's key absentees could decide Premier League title race

 • by Sam McGuire
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We may only be four games into the new Premier League season but the title race appears to be a two-horse race yet again. 

Heading into the international break, Liverpool sit top of the league with a 100 per cent record while Manchester City trail by two points. Of those remaining from the traditional top six, Arsenal are the closest with seven points to their name. 

The two at the summit have been relentless since the start of 2018/19 campaign. The Reds have claimed 109 points from 42 matches, scoring 101 goals and conceding just 26. Pep Guardiola’s men have racked up 108 points scoring 109 goals while only being breached on 27 occasions. 

Neither have been perfect but the Premier League hasn’t seen anything like this before. Teams have been dominant in the past but over a 42-match period, both teams have averaged north of 2.5 points per 90. 

The two have faced dips in form and have been unable to call on key players for periods, yet still they came out relatively unscathed.

City were without Fernandinho at times last season while Kevin De Bruyne missed much of the campaign. Liverpool, meanwhile, had a centre-back injury crisis while Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah picked up knocks as the season come to an end.

On all of these occasions, both teams had enough depth to survive these scares. This season, however, it could be different.

With the Reds missing Alisson and the Citizens without Aymeric Laporte, the 2019/20 title might well come down to which of two players is missing for the longest period. 

The Brazilian goalkeeper and the French centre-back aren’t just key players. They’re difference-makers. When it comes to these two specifically, it isn’t about having enough depth. It’s all about the quality. 

It’s impossible to have adequate cover for Laporte and Alisson waiting around for an opportunity. Their losses will have an impact. 

Alisson’s debut season in England was remarkable. He kept the most clean sheets, conceded the fewest goals and played a pivotal part in Liverpool lifting the Champions League and Brazil winning the Copa America. He should’ve been in the race to claim the Ballon d’Or

His fall while taking a goal-kick against Norwich looked innocuous but he’s still sidelined now and doesn’t look that close to a return. 

Liverpool have managed without him so far with Adrian doing an admirable job between the sticks. But the Champions League soon returns and ties against rivals are just around the corner. It’s in these games that Alisson made the difference last season. It’s in these games that you often separate the good from the world-class.

Since Laporte’s arrival at the Etihad, City have taken things up a gear defensively. Guardiola called him the best left-footed centre-back in the world and he’s probably just behind Virgil van Dijk in terms of being the best defender in the game on current form. 

His influence on the Premier League champions is invaluable. He gets what Guardiola wants and he executes his plans on the pitch. The £57million City spent on him now looks like chump change and he’s easily worth double that in the market. 

Early reports suggest Laporte won’t feature again this year. The worst-case scenario would be he misses the rest of the season. City were already reportedly keen to add to their defensive ranks, this injury will now more than likely make it a guarantee.

But finding someone to do what the former Athletic Club star does won’t be easy. If Guardiola could build a centre-back from scratch it’d more than likely end up being eerily similar to Laporte.

Forward-thinking, aggressive and unnervingly accurate, there’s nothing sterile about the way in which the 25-year-old plays the game.

With John Stones also out injured, City find themselves with just one senior centre-back: Nicolas Otamendi. Fernandinho will likely move into the backline but Champions’ aura won’t be the same.

The opposition will fear the champions going forward but defensively they’ll now fancy their chances. Most will still lose but there’s a greater chance of an upset against this weakened backline.

It’s been the same early on with Liverpool. The loss of Alisson resulted in uncertain moments. Though the Reds have been fairly comfortable in their Premier League matches, the Brazilian’s absence has been noticeable.

The worrying part if you’re a fan of the Merseysiders is that the club haven’t put a timeline on his return. He’ll be back before Laporte but fans don’t know when.

The crunch match arrives at the start of November when Liverpool welcome City to Anfield. The league could look completely different by that stage but if Alisson is back it’s an advantage to Jürgen Klopp’s men heading into that particular battle.

These ties could be what decide the fate of the title, just as they did last season.

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