The international break has arrived, bringing the best Premier League title race in years to a temporary halt.
As we move into the final months of the season, Liverpool lead defending champions Manchester City by two points, though Pep Guardiola’s side hold a crucial game in hand.
But just how will the break affect the two contenders?
Now that Xherdan Shaqiri has been ruled out of the Switzerland squad with a groin injury, Liverpool have 12 players out on international duty during this break. Of those, Andy Robertson is set to miss at least one of Scotland’s games because of a planned dental operation, while Jordan Henderson is a doubt for England’s meeting with the Czech Republic on Friday, having missed Sunday’s trip to Fulham.
Eight of the XI that started at Craven Cottage on Sunday have gone to play for their national sides, but perhaps crucially Mo Salah has not. The forward has been rested by Egypt manager Javier Aguirre as he looks at some younger talent ahead of this summer’s African Nations Cup. Salah has been out of sorts in recent weeks, but it is no surprise that he is showing signs of fatigue, having featured in every game for the club this season, including starts in all eight Champions League ties and 30 of their 31 league fixtures.
More good news is that Brazil’s friendly against Panama is being played in Porto, so there is no long-haul flight or delayed return for Roberto Firmino, Fabinho and Alisson, with Sadio Mane’s return to Senegal representing the most challenging trip.
The schedule is relatively kind too, with Klopp’s side not in Premier League action until Sunday afternoon the following weekend, though they do have arguably their most difficult remaining fixture, welcoming Tottenham to Anfield.
Pep Guardiola’s side have ten first teamers away on senior international duty, as well as Phil Foden with the England Under-21s. John Stones and Fabian Delph have already pulled out of the senior England squad with minor injuries, while Nicolas Otamendi has done the same with Argentina.
Guardiola said yesterday that he was “praying” for his stars to come back injury-free, but equally important could be the chance to get some of his key players who have not travelled back to full fitness – the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Benjamin Mendy and Fernandinho could all return.
One area where City certainly have it better than Liverpool is in the players who have not travelled. Aymeric Laporte’s international limbo goes on, David Silva has retired from Spain duty and Sergio Aguero is not in the Argentina squad.
Like Liverpool, City benefit from the lack of a trip to South America for Gabriel Jesus, Ederson and Danilo, while Algeria have two home games, meaning Riyad Mahrez’s schedule is not as gruelling as it would be were he playing in Sub-Saharan Africa.
City do have the disadvantage of playing at Saturday lunchtime straight after the break, but a trip to as-good-as-relegated Fulham should not cause too many problems.
Where the break probably damages City is in terms of momentum. If you count the EFL Cup final shootout win over Chelsea, Guardiola’s side have won 11 on the bounce in all competitions, compared to Liverpool’s run of six wins in the same number of games.