Dubai: Back in December, it was Manchester City who blinked first in one of the most fascinating Premier League title races in recent years.

But now Pep Guardiola’s men are back in the driving seat and have fixed an unflinching glare on defending the silverware they won in record fashion last time out.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola 0121
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola consoles injured player Kevin De Bruyne as he leaves the pitch during the English Premier League soccer match between Bournemouth and Manchester City, at the Vitality Stadium, in Bournemouth, England, Saturday March 2, 2019. Image Credit: AP

Liverpool’s newly acquired ability to pick up one point instead of three has turned a seven-point advantage for the Anfield club into a one-point deficit since the turn of the year.

Hence, City are now the favourites to retain their crown after Saturday’s 1-0 win at Bournemouth and Sunday’s goalless Merseyside derby left them a point ahead of Klopp’s Reds with nine matches remaining.

The Manchester boys had been banging in goals for fun earlier this campaign after a damaging December saw them fall behind a Liverpool side hunting for their first top-flight title in 29 long years.

But two single-goal victories over West Ham United and Bournemouth has their manager gushing praise that this was the best he had seen his side ever perform — thanks to steely determination rather than four-or-five-goal walks in the park.

“In the way we play, we play much, much better [than last season],” Guardiola said.

“Everybody knows exactly what we have to do, everybody helps each other. And when this happens, we can compete and if we lose, we lose, but no regrets.

“I know in our society just the first one has the credit and the second one is an absolute loser. But it is impossible to feel that about my players, it’s impossible.”

Despite failing to replicate last season’s dominance, City have shown a new, determined side, one they were unaccustomed to exposing as they were in the unusual position of playing catch-up in the standings, rather than setting the pace.

And now they have wrestled top spot back from Liverpool, the fears on the red side of Merseyside are growing again that their side will come up short at the business end of the season.

Klopp remains defiant

One man refusing to give up the fight is Klopp, who remains defiant that his side are in supreme confidence despite the draw at Everton meaning they have now shared the points in four of the past six Premier League encounters and seen their lead in the table evaporate.

“I don’t have to give my players any advice, they know already,” said Klopp. “They’re not little boys any more.

“Sometimes you have the lead and people say it’s done when there are 20 games to go to the end of the season, and now they have one or two more points than us. It’s the beginning of March, who cares?

“I believe 100 per cent in our chances.”

Liverpool’s go-to goalgetter Mohammad Salah was wasteful in the 0-0 draw with Everton, and he passed up two golden chances to give Liverpool the lead at Goodison Park.

In the first half, he shot straight at Jordan Pickford with the goal at his mercy, then after the break a poor touch allowed Michael Keane to make a brilliant clearing tackle when the Egyptian should have scored.

“When you see the situation, he is doing everything right,” Klopp said of Salah.

“He takes his decision a millisecond earlier or later and the defender can jump in. We had our moments but there is no reason for taking it or not taking it, you have to fight against the circumstances, against the opponent, and the boys did that.”

It has not been a season of smiles for Everton but, come May, should City lift the trophy for the fifth time in 10 years, the Goodison faithful will know they played their part in denying their age-old rivals the tile and heaped a whole load of agony on them in the process.