Winning a Premier League title requires skill, determination, astute tactics and desire. Mental fortitude, as much as technical quality, is needed. It’s a long season, with plenty of difficult moments that test teams.
Manchester City faced perhaps their biggest test of the season on Wednesday. It was certainly their most important league game this term. They went into it having beaten Liverpool at Anfield once in 35 years—back in 2003—but this was a game that, given other results, could have seen them put themselves right back in the hunt for the title. It was vital they showed their mettle and got the three points that would have put them in a position to challenge for the title in the final 11 games.
This isn’t a great Liverpool team. Their back four contained Nathaniel Clyne playing out of position on the left, Jon Flanagan, who has played very little football over the past 18 months, and Kolo Toure and Dejan Lovren, both of whom are susceptible to errors when placed under pressure.
They were allowed to coast through the 90 minutes, as City gave their most stomach-churning no-show of the season. It was a galling, pitiful performance that earned them exactly what they deserved. Nothing.
The 3-0 scoreline only told half the story. Their players, from back to front, were appalling, unable to use the momentum they had gathered over the past week to inflict damage on Liverpool. In the first half, they were outworked; in the second, they were outclassed. The stuff of champions this most certainly was not.
Manuel Pellegrini was visibly shaken in his post-match press conference, unable to offer much in the way of an explanation. His protestations his side were jaded from their recent exertions and that they didn't deserve to be beaten so convincingly felt hollow.
"We didn’t expect to lose here 3-0," he said. “I don’t think that was the difference—especially in the first half.
"Second half maybe they played better. In the first half, we didn’t deserve to be 2-0 down at half-time.
"From the beginning I saw that our team was not fresh. We hadn't recovered from the last week—the Champions League game, the travel from Ukraine and the game on Sunday.
"From the beginning, I saw Liverpool had more energy. They recovered the ball at high pace. We didn't have chances to score."
Pinpointing blame would be trivial given there was a lack of quality right across the side. Joe Hart could have done better with Adam Lallana’s weak shot for the opener. The back four looked tired and lacked assuredness. Nothing came off for David Silva. Sergio Aguero looked isolated.
Pellegrini’s decision to bring off Fernandinho, one of the most energetic players in the City squad, whose drive and stamina has been vital this season, was odd. Wilfried Bony came on at half-time, replacing the ineffective Raheem Sterling. Kelechi Iheanacho joined him shortly after in place of Fernandinho. They were alterations that left City wide open in midfield, as Liverpool began to cut through them with ease.
Results elsewhere mean City haven’t lost much ground at the top of the table, but the gap behind them has been eradicated. They’re 10 points adrift of leaders Leicester City with a game in hand. Manchester United, in fifth, are level on points. Forget talk of the title, concentrating on remaining in the top four should top Pellegrini’s priorities.
"The Premier League continues exactly the same all season," Pellegrini said afterward. "Not one team makes the difference. It is important now to try and recover our performance in the Premier League and perform like we have in the last two games [in] the Champions League and the Capital One Cup.
“We have to win again because we lost the last three games and we want to be at the top of the table.
"We have less than three days to recover. We have to play Saturday [at] 3 p.m. So we will see what is the best team we can start."
If City fail to win this Premier League, the most open in history, it will perhaps go down as the great missed opportunity of the Sheikh Mansour era at the club. There’s a distinct lack of strength and nerve at the top. City, on paper, have by far the most superior squad in the division.
Their display at Anfield, the most important league fixture of their season to date, was shocking. City have thrown their title chances away with a whimper.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2015/16 season. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard.