By Martyn Herman
(Reuters) – Manchester City’s hopes of claiming a hat-trick of Premier League titles are receding fast as the clinical efficiency that was the trademark of the last two seasons continues to desert them.
Pep Guardiola’s side were twice in front at Newcastle United on Saturday but they returned home with a 2-2 draw that opened the door for Liverpool to move 11 points clear.
Raheem Sterling’s 22nd-minute effort had given them the lead, only for Jetro Willems to equalise and even when Kevin de Bruyne’s thunderbolt restored their advantage late on they were again pegged back by Jonjo Shelvey’s stunning strike.
While Liverpool have been churning out wins, City have looked strangely vulnerable.
They were fortunate to beat Chelsea 2-1 last week and before the international break struggled past a Southampton side crushed 9-0 at home by Leicester City.
The zip has gone out of their passing and despite having 77 percent of possession and 24 attempts at goal against Newcastle on Saturday, they were bogged down for long periods with Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus, who were both substituted, ineffective.
One win in their last five games in all competitions is a worrying statistic for Guardiola, who can only hope that cracks finally start to appear in Liverpool’s armour in the busy month ahead.
Even if Liverpool stumble, however, it is hard to see City putting together the kind of sequence that saw them win 14 consecutive Premier League matches to win the title last season.
Guardiola, however, said it was not a case of his side in decline.
“We play the same way as last season. The way we played today was at that level,” he said. “We could not score all the chances we had; they scored the two chances they had.
“Sometimes it happens. The tempo was good all the time. We had to move the ball across more, but in general we did well.”
City are away at Burnley on Tuesday when they could find themselves in third spot, if Leicester avoid defeat on Sunday.
“We have to accept it, work on our strengths and learn from this. It’s tough, but we have just two days to recover,” Guardiola said.
Defender John Stones said City had gone from “elation to deflation” on Saturday, but insisted the race was still on.
“We’re going to have to reflect and change it round very quickly,” he said. “It’s still on. We’re still going to fight until the last day.
“That’s what we’ll do, like we did last season. The spirit has to be there.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)