SOCCER - A.Klagenfurt vs Southampton, test match KLAGENFURT,AUSTRIA,18.JUL.22 - SOCCER - ADMIRAL Bundesliga, Premier League, SK Austria Klagenfurt vs FC Southampton, test match. Image shows a ball. PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxAUTxSUIxSWE GEPAxpictures/xFlorianxMori

They’re just not used to this. As we near Christmas, Manchester City find themselves in third place, 14 points off the top of the Premier League. After two successive seasons of unimpeachable excellence, Pep Guardiola’s side are being forced to come to terms with something like mediocrity – by their standards at least.

With almost half the season played, the question is whether City can bridge the gap between themselves and runaway leaders Liverpool, or if a third consecutive Premier League title will prove just too elusive this time around.

Cracks appearing

This season, we’ve seen Manchester City losing matches they simply would not have lost in the past two campaigns. Guardiola’s men have four defeats to their name in the Premier League this term, suffering reversals against Norwich City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Liverpool and Manchester United. The losses to Norwich and Wolves in particular showcased the slowly appearing chinks in City’s once impenetrable armour.

It’s difficult for the club’s players, staff, and supporters to reconcile this sudden tendency for underperformance in light of the gold standard set in the previous two campaigns. The defeat to Liverpool showed a frantic, unravelled Guardiola, and a side lost for inspiration. Despite controlling large parts of the match, they were blown away by the thundering, swashbuckling brilliance of Jürgen Klopp’s men going forward.

City’s success last season, in many respects, hinged on their ability to stifle Liverpool in the two Premier League meetings between the sides. The 0-0 draw at Anfield delivered a valuable point, and they would have won all three had Riyad Mahrez not missed a late penalty. But it was the 2-1 win over the Reds in January that ultimately gave City the edge – the only defeat Liverpool suffered all season. The most recent meeting, however, showed a City side unable to hit those same heights.

Strong opposition

Of course, City falling away this season is not just down to their own slight drop in standards. Liverpool have been a winning machine, continuously picking up three points despite not always playing at their best. Klopp’s side have gone from strength to strength since winning the Champions League. They appear to be reaching their peak just as City are descending theirs, and are the firm favourites in the latest odds on the Premiership title winners.

Leicester City, too, have surprised many with their run of form, currently sitting in second place. Brendan Rodgers has rekindled the spirit of the side that won the Premier League title against all the odds in the 2015-16 season, and with the Foxes boasting a better squad on paper now than back then, their good form looks set to continue.

An insurmountable gap?

Miracles are possible in football, as City fans don’t need reminding. It looked like Roberto Mancini’s side had thrown away the 2011-12 Premier League title before Sergio Agüero delivered his famous late heroics. With plenty of games remaining this season, a comeback can’t be ruled out if City can rediscover their best form. We mustn’t forget the quality at Pep Guardiola’s disposal in midfield and attack. If they can begin to hit the right notes again more consistently, then a winning run could see City close the gap.

There are plenty of variables involved of which City have no control, not least the form of Liverpool. But this is a new challenge for Guardiola’s men after the dizzy heights of the previous two campaigns. Now they are the challengers, part of the chasing pack, and in some ways the dangling carrot that is Liverpool may just drive the Citizens on with that bit of extra determination. A third successive Premier League title was a tantalising prospect at the beginning of the season, and while the odds are stacked against City, if football has taught us anything, it’s to never say never.