MANCHESTER, England — While Manchester City is away, its Premier League title rivals have been getting into position to try to end the three-time defending champions’ domestic dominance.
Pep Guardiola has spent this week in Saudi Arabia, aiming to add the Club World Cup to the treble of trophies his team won in 2023. But back home, its title defense is faltering after a run of just one win in six games in England’s top division.
And having won the trophy in five of the last six seasons, City appears to face a wider challenge to its supremacy than at any point under Guardiola.
Fourth-place City trails leader Arsenal by five points and doesn’t return to league play until Dec. 27 at Everton.
It remains to be seen what lessons Arsenal has learned after pushing City so close last season. No team has led the Premier League for as long in a campaign without winning the title.
Arsenal spent heavily to build on its rapid progress last year, with Declan Rice joining for a reported $138 million transfer from West Ham in the offseason.
It is paying off so far as Mikel Arteta’s team sits atop the Premier League and will be guaranteed to retain first place by Christmas if it beats Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday. Liverpool trails Arsenal by one point.
Arsenal has already shown its credentials by beating City twice this season, first in a penalty shootout in the Community Shield and then in the league at Emirates Stadium in October.
A win against Liverpool would be further evidence that it could go one better than last year.
Of the likely challengers to City, Jurgen Klopp is the only manager who has gotten the better of Guardiola through Liverpool’s title triumph in 2020.
Second-place Liverpool’s resurgence has come as a surprise given it missed out on Champions League qualification last season and has seen a host of star players depart over the past 18 months.
But Klopp looks like he has put together a squad that is capable of challenging again — and his team is still in contention to win four trophies this season, having advanced to the semifinals of the League Cup and the round of 16 in the Europa League. Liverpool plays Arsenal next month in the third round of the FA Cup.
Much may depend on Mohamed Salah’s form, given Liverpool no longer has the firepower of Sadio Mane to call on, with Darwin Nunez, Cody Gakpo and Diogo Jota less prolific than the Senegal forward.
Unai Emery has worked wonders with a team that was threatened with relegation when he took over last season.
Villa — level on points with Liverpool and in third place on goal difference — plays Sheffield United on Friday with a shot to take the league lead.
Villa is the surprise package of the season, having beaten City and Arsenal in recent weeks.
Few expect Villa to maintain its challenge, but few expected Emery’s team to be in this position at this stage of the season either.
It is unlikely that a challenge to City will from anywhere else this season, but Tottenham impressed at the start of the campaign before injuries took their toll on Ange Postecoglou’s team.
Spurs are a point behind City in fifth place.
Sixth-place Newcastle is five points behind City, and Manchester United is in seventh a further point back.
Neither of those teams look likely to mount a serious title bid.