Pellegrini eyes plenty more twists
Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini knows the Boxing Day battle with Liverpool will be one of many rounds in a Premier League title fight which has plenty of twists and turns to come.
City remain firmly in contention following a 4-2 win at Fulham last Saturday which took them one point behind Liverpool, who in Luis Suarez have the championship's in-form striker.
Suarez's sparkling form is highlighted by his continued excellence in the absence of City's Sergio Aguero, who has a calf injury and could be out for up to eight weeks.
Pellegrini, whose side beat Arsenal 6-3 in their most recent home match, expects a fierce examination of his troops against the resurgent Reds, who won 5-0 at Tottenham in their most recent away game.
"Very difficult," Pellegrini said.
"Liverpool is a very good team and Suarez is in a very good moment.
"But I think this Premier League, we are just finishing the first half, in two more games.
"And this Premier League will not just be Liverpool and Manchester City. Five or six teams will fight until the end."
Aguero is not the only frontline City player absence - hamstring injuries for right-backs Pablo Zabaleta and Micah Richards mean Gael Clichy could again be asked to play on his 'wrong' flank - but Pellegrini is confident he has the strength in depth to manage.
"We have a really strong squad with real quality players, who can cope with all the matches, without our injured players and players that can't play," he added.
City have conceded five goals in two matches, leading some to question their resilience in a title battle which will likely go to the wire.
But Pellegrini is adamant the 2012 champions' approach will not change, even though opponents may adopt an ultra-cautious approach in an effort to stifle his side.
"I think they (opponents) have changed already but I think we try to solve the different problems put to our team," Pellegrini added.
"The way in football is to score goals, that is why people pay for their tickets.
"Fans are always trying to celebrate the goals of their teams.
"That is very important, I think it is the best way to win.
"As much as you can. Maybe sometimes winning 1-0 is a very good goal, and that goal is three points more.
"But if you are playing well, why would you change if you are winning by two goals?
"If you are winning by two, why don't you continue the same way?"
Joe Hart is to retain his place after making a first Premier League start in almost two months at Fulham.
Gael Clichy could continue on his 'wrong' flank at right-back due to injuries for Pablo Zabaleta and Micah Richards (both hamstring) or central defender Dedryck Boyata, midfielder James Milner or Aleksandar Kolarov could be drafted in.
Top scorer Sergio Aguero (calf) and defender Matija Nastasic (calf) are out and Stevan Jovetic missed the win at Fulham due to illness so could be absent once more.
Defender Glen Johnson insists Liverpool have a first-choice XI which is a match for any of their bigger-spending rivals.
The Barclays Premier League leaders face tough trips to Manchester City on Boxing Day and, three days later, Chelsea - both clubs who have far greater financial resources than the Merseysiders.
However, in addition to being top of the table, the Reds have the league's leading scorer in Luis Suarez spearheading their attack.
The Uruguay international has 10 goals in his last four matches, has failed to score in only one of his last seven appearances and since the start of last season has scored 49 goals in 57 games in all competitions and 42 in 45 league fixtures.
He requires only one to become the first Liverpool player to score 20 league goals in the top flight before the new year since Jack Balmer in 1946/47.
Liverpool also have fellow striker Daniel Sturridge and captain Steven Gerrard to come back from injury in the next month and although that will not come soon enough for the tests against their top-four rivals, Johnson is confident they will be competitive for two crucial matches.
"We take each game as it comes but if we can go to White Hart Lane and perform like we did there (winning 5-0) is no reason why we can't win these games," he told Press Association Sport.
"In terms of the starting XI I think we can compete. It is just getting it right on the day and everyone performing to the best we can.
"If we can do that we can cause anyone problems, it doesn't matter how much money they spend."
If Liverpool have a weakness it is when they have to look outside their primary first-choice side for replacements.
Young right-back Jon Flanagan is currently playing on the left of the defence because of injury to Jose Enrique and the unsuitability of loan signing Aly Cissokho while they are light in central midfield.
Johnson accepts they do not have the numbers other teams may have but believes there is a greater team spirit in their smaller unit.
"We all know we need much more than our starting XI, I think we have some great players around the squad that know that," he added.
"With some clubs anyone who is not starting may get the hump, not train well and throw their toys out a bit.
"Whereas we have got good lads and good professionals around who people realise they have to wait their turn.
"But we have been using a few different formations so it gives a few people an opportunity to play and because everyone knows they are on the verge of playing it keeps the squad tighter together rather than having the same XI every single week."
Liverpool's progress to the top has surprised many and doubts persist whether they can maintain it throughout a whole campaign.
But the last four sides to be top on Christmas Day have gone on to win the title - Liverpool were the last not to do it in 2008 when they finished runners-up to Manchester United.
The changes manager Brendan Rodgers has implemented since taking over from club icon Kenny Dalglish in the summer of 2012 have come to fruition this campaign, having shown an upturn in fortunes from January.
With many of Liverpool's rivals - City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Everton and now Tottenham - having changed their manager for this season Johnson feels they have a slight advantage.
"Usually when clubs get a new manager the first season is not what everyone wants. Usually it comes out more in the second seasons," he added.
"It is a transition period for a lot of teams so maybe we have the extra year on a few and the way things are going at the moment if we can keep taking things week by week I think we can be dangerous."
Liverpool defender Jon Flanagan picked up a slight hamstring problem in Saturday's victory over Cardiff and could be a doubt for the Boxing Day trip.