|Premier League: Man City v Liverpool|
|Venue: Etihad Stadium Date: Thursday, 3 January Kick-off: 20:00 GMT|
|BBC coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live, live text commentary on BBC Sport website|
Manchester City’s meeting with Liverpool at Etihad Stadium on Thursday has the capacity to become the Premier League title race’s decisive moment.
The stakes are at their highest for all involved, particularly managers Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.
Liverpool have pulled away to open up a seven-point gap over City as the season reaches the turn for home, after the champions suffered three defeats in four league games before restoring stability with victory at Southampton on Sunday.
Tottenham cannot be ruled out of the race and have now muscled between the two long-time pacesetters into second place after their convincing 3-0 win at Cardiff City but this is without question the most eagerly-awaited league game of the season with potentially far-reaching ramifications.
Guardiola will know defeat is not an option for City. If they lose then all statistics and logic suggest it will take a Liverpool collapse on a scale that looks simply unforeseeable to revive City’s hopes of a second successive title.
The Premier League season is packed with imponderables but a Liverpool win would effectively mean they must lose at least three of their last 17 games, having lost none of their previous 21. And that’s assuming City go undefeated.
Liverpool’s fixture list also looks favourable. After Thursday they will have only three of the top six left to play, with two of those games – against Chelsea and Tottenham – at Anfield.
A draw against City would suit Liverpool more but history tells us this approach will not enter Klopp’s head.
This, however, is Guardiola’s Manchester City we are talking about. This is the side that won the title with a historic 100 points last season and prompted talk of invincibility earlier in this campaign.
If City win they can put a fresh twist on this title race. Should it happen, they might be tempted to point out Liverpool had put together an unbeaten 20-game start to the season and could still only open up a four-point lead. In other words: “You’ve done that and we’re still on your shoulders.”
It is a game that almost staggers under the weight of its own significance in a Premier League context.
And for Guardiola and Klopp, even at this relatively early stage of the campaign, history beckons and this is the night that may, in the final reckoning, bring it even closer.
Guardiola’s track record of success means his status as one of the great coaches does not need affirmation, but it will add to his reputation if he can become the first City manager – and the first from any club for a decade – to retain the Premier League crown.
He has already admitted – although mind games must not be discounted in this sharpest of operators – that “the problem is the other team is fantastic, maybe the best team in Europe or the world right now and in top form”.
And he added: “If we drop points it is over. It is finished. It would be almost impossible.”
Events at Etihad Stadium on Thursday could shape his destiny – and the same applies to Klopp.
Klopp has captured the hearts and minds of Liverpool supporters in a manner that predecessor Brendan Rodgers could not, despite coming within a Steven Gerrard slip of winning the Premier League in 2014.
The German has a direct line to the emotions of Liverpool’s fans and will be elevated to legendary status should he bring the title almost regarded as the club’s personal property in the 1970s and 80s back to Anfield after a 29-year gap.
For all that the importance of the meeting with City will be downplayed, the right result will represent a giant stride towards that Holy Grail.
Klopp must also become a winner this season after losing finals in the League Cup, Europa League and Champions League. Plaudits are deserved but prizes have always represented the genuine currency at Liverpool.
Liverpool and Klopp will find it almost impossible to keep the lid on expectation and excitement if the unbeaten run continues and the ferocious intensity and commitment to attack that demolished Arsenal in the 5-1 win at Anfield on Saturday are repeated at City.
It is also an occasion that will illustrate much about the current City and Liverpool sides.
City under Guardiola have been a thing of beauty, especially in last season’s title campaign, and they have repeated that at stages this term.
This is a great Manchester City side. The century of points haul last season stands as a monument to that.
If any doubts remain, they can be banished by the retention of the Premier League.
For Liverpool, the current team – now looking the complete machine following the addition of £75m defender Virgil van Dijk a year ago and £67m goalkeeper Alisson in the summer – have some supporters talking of their potential to join the great ones of the past.
It is, for now, exactly that. Potential.
The horizons, however, are vast, with realistic chances of success in the Premier League and Champions League this season. If they can overcome City on their own territory, belief will grow that they can deliver on that promise.
This meeting between City and Liverpool had a big enough billing when, just a few weeks ago, they were expected to face up to each other neck-and-neck.
If anything, the points on offer are now even more important.
If City win, they will be four points behind Liverpool and will bank on that first league defeat for Klopp’s men acting as a catalyst for doubts to creep in where previously there have been none, for the pressure valve to just be tightened a little.
If Liverpool win, the question would be asked: who can realistically stop them? And even if anyone did, would that be enough for a huge gap to be closed?
Guardiola has already alluded to the impact it might have on Manchester City’s title ambitions if they lose.
This is the night when the Premier League title could be won and lost.