Arsenal, Liverpool's moment of truth in Premier League title race

Nicol: Man City are now favourites to win the Premier League (1:46)

ESPN FC's Steve Nicol says Arsenal handed a huge advantage to title rivals Manchester City after their crushing defeat at home to Aston Villa. (1:46)

Arsenal and Liverpool have their own problems right now as they attempt to reignite their Premier League title hopes. But the aching bodies, tired minds and damaged morale that managers Mikel Arteta and Jürgen Klopp must overcome are suddenly threatening to halt Manchester City and Pep Guardiola, too.

If the Premier League trophy is to end the season decked in red ribbons rather than blue, this weekend is the final chance for both Arsenal and Liverpool to turn the screw on City and capitalise on their moment of weakness. By the time City return to Premier League action, at Brighton & Hove Albion next Thursday, Arsenal and Liverpool could be four points clear of Guardiola's team. If that turns out to be the case, don't underestimate the scale of the task facing the reigning champions.

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The sight of Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne limping out of City's Champions League quarterfinal defeat against Real Madrid on Wednesday, combined with the looks of exhaustion and failure on the faces of Guardiola and his players, has raised question marks over City's ability to bounce back and win a fourth successive title. Who knows how significant a blow it will be to City to have their treble hopes extinguished by a penalty shootout defeat? But having gone 27 games without walking off the pitch in defeat -- yes, they technically drew over 120 minutes against Madrid, but try telling Guardiola and his players they didn't lose the game -- City have now lost the air of invincibility that they have developed since their 1-0 loss at Aston Villa in December.

Some title races are defined by teams that really hit their stride as they approach the finish line. They deal with injuries, fatigue and opposition "mind games" as though they don't exist. Leicester City's fairy-tale triumph in 2016 and City's hat trick of titles over the past three years are examples of sides blanking out all distractions to clinch the championship. But sometimes the teams at the top wobble, and their physical and mental strength are tested to the limit. In 2012, when Sergio Agüero's 93rd-minute winner against Queen's Park Rangers sealed the title for City in the final game of the season, both they and nearest rivals Manchester United built and lost significant leads -- United were eight points clear with six games to play -- during the run-in.

This season's title race will be shaped by what happens this weekend. City's FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea on Saturday (stream LIVE at 12:15 p.m. ET on ESPN+) gives their title rivals the chance to dislodge Guardiola's side from top spot, with Arsenal away to Wolves on Saturday evening and Liverpool travelling to Fulham on Sunday. But although City's confidence will have been dented by the Real defeat, Arsenal and Liverpool must also haul themselves off the floor.

Arsenal face Wolverhampton Wanderers having lost their past two games without scoring, against Aston Villa in the league and Bayern Munich in the Champions League, while a run of one point from Liverpool's past two Premier League games has damaged their own title challenge. The 3-0 Europa League defeat at home to Atalanta between those dropped points against United and Crystal Palace inflicted drained belief at Anfield, too. But although both teams now trail City by two points at the top of the Premier League, momentum can shift quickly, and Arsenal and Liverpool simply have to win this weekend to keep their hopes alive.

Arsenal need to buck their recent trend of faltering in the final weeks of a season if they are to win the title. Last season, the Gunners won just four of their last 10 league matches, while in 2021-22 they won five and lost five of their final 10 games. This time, they realistically need to win all six of their remaining games, but if they can claim all three points at Molineux and then beat Chelsea at the Emirates on Tuesday, a four-point lead (and a significantly healthier goal difference over City) would put Arteta's team firmly back in the hunt for the title.

Liverpool have a track record of finishing strongly in the league, so their recent dropped points are out of character for Klopp's side. Last season, seven wins and three draws from their final 10 games were almost enough to clinch a top-four finish, while eight wins and two draws during the 2021-22 run-in left them just a point adrift of eventual champions City.

Next up is Sunday's trip to Fulham which, following Thursday's Europa League elimination despite winning the second leg against Atalanta 1-0 in Italy, is crucial for Liverpool's title ambitions. Although Liverpool haven't lost at Craven Cottage since December 2011, they have drawn on their past two league visits to the stadium -- a result they can ill afford this weekend. But a win at Fulham, coupled with another victory in the Merseyside derby at Everton on Wednesday, would lift them four points clear of City, who would have played two games fewer than Liverpool and Arsenal by the time they reemerge on league duty at Brighton.

There are plenty of ifs and buts surrounding Arsenal and Liverpool, but one thing is absolutely clear: they both have to win this weekend to retain any realistic hope of winning the title. Yet if one or both of them can do the job this weekend and back it up with another win in midweek, a four-point deficit even with two games in hand would be a challenge for City to meet. History suggests Guardiola and his players will deal with that challenge, but the title race isn't over yet.

Real Madrid have shown that City can be overcome, so Arsenal and Liverpool must apply the pressure to make it happen in the Premier League.