MANCHESTER, England, Dec 22 (Reuters) - Last Christmas, Manchester City were able to relax in the comfort of a 13-point lead in the Premier League but, after two defeats in three games, the festive mood of Pep Guardiola’s team will be tinged with a little anxiety this year.
City’s aura of invincibility has gone and with it the feeling that a second straight title for the club was almost inevitable.
The 2-0 defeat at Chelsea a fortnight ago suggested that Liverpool were not chasing Guardiola’s team in vain but Saturday’s shock 3-2 loss at home to Crystal Palace leaves City trailing Juergen Klopp’s side by four points.
The festive fixtures will conclude with a meeting of the top two in Manchester on Jan. 3 and, while the business half of the season remains, the prospect of Liverpool extending their lead should focus minds at the Etihad.
City face a tricky Boxing Day fixture away to a Leicester team who on Saturday did what Guardiola’s side could not manage — win at Stamford Bridge.
Then a trip to Southampton, revitalised with two wins under new manager Ralph Hasenhuttl, awaits on Dec. 30 before the clash with Klopp’s men opens the New Year.
“We are in December and we will try and recover and try and win games again,” said Guardiola, who could offer little explanation for Saturday’s loss.
“There are a lot of games to play. We have to recover mentally and recover our physicality,” he added.
Injuries have certainly played their part in City’s recent stumbles — club record scorer Sergio Aguero and Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne are players of such quality that some drop-off is inevitable without them.
The pair came on as second-half substitutes against Palace and should be ready to play more central roles in the festive fixtures but the absence which has hurt the team most is that of David Silva.
The Spaniard has been sidelined with a hamstring injury he picked up in the Chelsea loss on Dec. 8 and while he is back in training and should be ready to return before the Liverpool game, City missed him badly against Palace.
The zip to City’s passing and movement, particularly in the space in front of the opposition penalty area, was missing with no-one able to direct play with the urgency and precision that Silva provides.
Without him, the wide players Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling did not receive the same quality of service and lone forward Gabriel Jesus saw few opportunities.
By the end of the game, with desperation setting in, City were reduced to the unthinkable — hitting optimistic balls into the box and hoping for a mistake or a ricochet to give them an equaliser.
Guardiola was in no mood to contemplate his team’s shortcomings, although he conceded that Kyle Walker, who gave away the penalty for the decisive third goal with a rash challenge, after a poor first-half performance, “will learn”.
But what he needs — as well as three points at Leicester and at Southampton - is for Silva to get fit and hopefully recreate the dominant midfield, with De Bruyne and Fernandinho, that made City such a potent force last season. (Reporting by Simon Evans; editing by Clare Fallon)