London: For the past three years Manchester City and Liverpool have dominated the Premier League to an extent never seen before in English football.
But after three seasons in which the title winner has averaged 99 points, neither side carries the same fear factor in an unpredictable campaign that offers a series of challengers hope of winning the league.
Defending champions Liverpool still head to City on Sunday in second place, trailing surprise leaders Southampton only by goal difference.
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But Jurgen Klopp’s men have already dropped more points in seven games than they did in their opening 27 in romping to the title last season.
Of more lasting damage to their title credentials, the Reds have also lost the towering presence of defender Virgil van Dijk for what looks set to be the lion’s share of the season.
Even when the giant Dutchman was still present, Liverpool suffered a historic 7-2 humiliation to Aston Villa a month ago that leaves them with still the worst defensive record in the league.
“So many things are different this year,” said Klopp on Friday in a season where a packed schedule and empty stadiums appears to be levelling the playing field.
“Nothing is to compare with last year. Nothing is to compare with the year before.
“We just have to make sure we get through very intense periods, line up the fittest players and play the best football we can. In this case it is against Man City, which is obviously one of the most difficult games to play in the world.”
Fitness issues have also contributed to City’s shaky start.
After a two-week long preseason due to their Champions League commitments in August, Pep Guardiola’s men won just two of their opening five league games, including a 5-2 thrashing at home to Leicester.
Injuries to Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus have left City often without a natural striker, while Aymeric Laporte, Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan also missed matches due to positive coronavirus tests.
City start the weekend down in 10th, albeit just five points off Liverpool and with a game in hand.
Everton v Man United, 4.30pm
Crystal Palace v Leeds, 7pm
Chelsea v Sheffield United, 9.30pm
West Ham v Fulham, midnight
West Brom v Tottenham, 4pm
Leicester v Wolverhampton, 6pm
Man City v Liverpool, 8.30pm
Arsenal v Aston Villa, 11.15pm