For the past three years, Manchester City and Liverpool have dominated the Premier League to an extent never seen before in English football.
But after three seasons in which the title winner has averaged 99 points, neither side carries the same fear factor in an unpredictable campaign that offers a series of challengers hope of winning the league.
Defending champions Liverpool still head to City on Sunday in second place, trailing surprise leaders Southampton only by goal difference.
But Jurgen Klopp’s men have already dropped more points in seven games than they did in their opening 27 in romping to the title last season.
Of more lasting damage to their title credentials, the Reds have also lost the towering presence of defender Virgil van Dijk for what looks set to be the lion’s share of the season.
Even when the giant Dutchman was still present, Liverpool suffered a historic 7-2 humiliation to Aston Villa a month ago that leaves them with still the worst defensive record in the league.
“So many things are different this year,” said Klopp on Friday in a season where a packed schedule and empty stadiums appear to be levelling the playing field.
“Nothing is to compare with last year. Nothing is to compare with the year before.
“We just have to make sure we get through very intense periods, line up the fittest players and play the best football we can. In this case, it is against Man City, which is obviously one of the most difficult games to play in the world.”
Fitness issues have also contributed to City’s shaky start.
After a two-week-long pre-season due to their Champions League commitments in August, Pep Guardiola’s men won just two of their opening five league games, including a 5-2 thrashing at home to Leicester.
Injuries to Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus have left City often without a natural striker, while Aymeric Laporte, Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan also missed matches due to positive coronavirus tests.
City start the weekend down in 10th, albeit just five points off Liverpool and with a game in hand.
– Too early to call –
Both have steadied the ship in recent weeks and remain bookies favourites to fight for the title.
But they face stiff competition with Chelsea and Tottenham significantly strengthening for a title challenge, while Guardiola warned of the threat posed by Leicester and Arsenal.
“They (Liverpool) are the biggest favourite, but I think what happened with the pandemic this season is different, so I see other teams really strong,” said Guardiola.
Yet, the mutual respect between the two managers mean they continue to see each other as the biggest threat for the title.
Guardiola admitted earlier this year that Klopp’s Liverpool are “the toughest rival I have faced in my career.”
But City have never lost at home to Liverpool in the league since the Catalan arrived in Manchester, including a 4-0 thrashing of the newly-crowned champions when they last met in July.
Clashes between the two have gone a long way to settling the destiny of the title in recent years. After an uncertain start to the season, City’s 5-0 triumph over a 10-man Liverpool in September 2017 was the second of an 18-match winning run that catapulted them towards a record 100 Premier League points.
A thrilling 2-1 win for Guardiola’s side in January 2019 was Liverpool’s only defeat of the season in which they still missed out on the title despite amassing 97 points.
Last season it was Liverpool’s 3-1 success early in the campaign that opened up a nine-point lead between the sides that City never recovered from.
This time, though, Guardiola believes it is too early to make conclusions this time, much like another battle for power this week.
“It’s an important game, but as the presidential elections in the United States of America, all the votes must be counted,” he said on Friday. “There are a lot of points to play (for).”