THE Premier League title race may be in its infancy but it already feels as if it will be the most competitive it has been since Manchester City won it by two points in 2014 when they pipped Liverpool to the post courtesy of a late slip by the Merseysiders – and infamously – Steven Gerrard.

Back then, a mere seven points covered the teams that occupied the top four slots which comprised the aforementioned pair plus Chelsea and Arsenal. There has not been a season as hotly costly since: when City won the title in 2019 there may have been just one point separating them from the club they meet this afternoon at Anfield but there were a further 25 points down to Chelsea in third.

Chelsea already look stronger than last season and while Manchester United had another blip at home to Everton yesterday, they look too strong not to sustain a more credible challenge than in recent campaigns.

Nevertheless, City and Liverpool at their formidable best are inexorable victory-gathering machines. It is natural then to look for tiny, almost imperceptible flaws in their make-up and at present City's look more obvious than Liverpool's.

The former have scored at an average of a goal a game in their first six matches but it is a statistic that is heavily padded by 5-0 victories over a Norwich City side that is still to win [TBC] in the league and a then-feckless Arsenal. Of course, beating the previously impenetrable Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last weekend demonstrated that City will be contenders again this season – not that it was ever really in doubt. The main question mark against them, though, is that at some point the absence of an out-and-sought striker could catch them out. Already this season they have drawn 0-0 at home to Southampton in a game that was crying out for a prolific goalscorer to nick three points. Winning without a recognised No.9 has become more commonplace in the modern game but league champions nearly always possess a 20-goal-a-season man and singling out who that player is for City is no straightforward task.

Gabriel Jesus's highest tally in the Premier League is 14, accrued in the 2019-20 season but even during his time in Brazil he was hardly prolific with 13 his best return for Palmeiras and, in any case, he seems to have been converted to a right-winger by Guardiola. Ferran Torres gives off the vibe of a wide man filling in as a striker when he plays through the middle – and while his return of nine goals in 19 games playing at centre forward is laudable – he's not the kind of target to lead the line and alleviate pressure in the way, say, Harry Kane might have done for City. Of the other options Liam Delap, though well regarded, is too young and inexperienced to shoulder the responsibility on his own which leaves Raheem Sterling, who showed up well in the 2-0 defeat by Paris St-Germain in midweek, and drew praise from Guardiola.

Nevertheless, there is the sense that the 26-year-old is a peripheral figure under Guardiola. He was criticised for his performance as City lost their 21-game unbeaten record against Manchester United in March and reacted badly, rowing with his manager in the aftermath of that defeat. He was subsequently in purdah for the next game against Southampton and has yet to return to his manager's affections.

Sterling was mooted as a makeweight in any putative deal for Kane but one imagines that had the Tottenham striker arrived at the Etihad this summer, then his international colleague would have been one of those to benefit most. While Sterling's goal return for 2020-21 halved from his high-watermark of 20 the season prior, his output has been steadily increasing for his country. He has scored 16 times in his last 25 internationals (he has managed just two for City in the same number of games) and entered the season as one of the star performers at Euro 2020 having been in the team of the tournament.

Guardiola might have found it hard to forgive and forget but it feels as if his ambitions this year are predicated on getting a tune out of Sterling. Which perhaps explains why the two are reported to have met in an attempt to find an entente cordiale with one English newspaper suggesting that Guardiola and Sterling have “agreed to disagree” over their differences.

He is one of 14 players to have chipped in for City this season in the absence of a goalscoring talisman, and while it is always healthy to share the load, even Guardiola admits that it can be troublesome when “we have to do it in that way or we are not able to do it”.

It was an admission that sometimes only a prolific goalscorer will do: Sterling is the closest player in his squad to that description but not when facing his former team against whom he has scored just three times. Today at Anfield would be a good time to start reproducing his England form in a blue shirt.