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AFP

MANCHESTER -- Three points that no one realistically saw Manchester City dropping. Three points few believed a beleaguered Tottenham would win. What now for the title race and the morass of clubs vying to finish just behind the league leaders?

In reality, perhaps a City win should not have been taken for granted no matter how underwhelming Spurs had looked in recent weeks. After all, something seems to happen to Pep Guardiola's players when they face off against this particular opponent. This was the fourth of the last five Premier League meetings between these two to end with Tottenham victorious, as they were in such dramatic fashion in the 2019 Champions League quarterfinals.

The stakes might have been slightly lower on Saturday but this was no less dramatic, City's lengthy pursuit for a second equalizer seemingly ended by a Riyad Mahrez penalty in injury time only for Harry Kane to strike his second of the game moments later. There is still a long way to go this season, but there will be those on Merseyside, in north London and Manchester who wonder if this may be a pivotal moment in it.

The title race

Spurs' win prompted swift suggestions that the title race was back on. When was it ever off? After all, it is hardly as if City were being pursued by plucky underdogs who might eventually fade away. One might make a case that the two best teams in the world are now vying for top spot in the Premier League.

What changed for Liverpool on Saturday was that their destiny is now in their own hands. Of course it is also in City's. The league leaders are six points clear but have played a game more than Jurgen Klopp's side. That game in hand, it should be noted, is no three-point banker. On March 16, Liverpool travel to the Emirates Stadium, a ground they have already won at this season in the League Cup, but this time they may well be facing an Arsenal side that is closer to full strength. Following that, they welcome Manchester United to Old Trafford.

Still, Liverpool supporters will have inevitably skipped beyond those games in the immediate aftermath of Kane's back-post header. Suddenly, all eyes were diverted to April 9 and a visit to the Etihad Stadium. Win there, something they last did in the Champions League quarterfinals four years ago, and the title race would be decided by results elsewhere. Such is the relentless pace at which these two sides are accruing points that it seems feasible goal difference may enter the fray, currently led by City but by a fine margin. They have scored 63 and conceded 17, the Reds are at 64 and 20.

Even City are mentally circling that particular date. "We know from recent years that Liverpool are always contenders," said Ilkay Gundogan at full time. "They're always up there. 

"We know they'll try everything to make our lives as difficult as possible. The good thing is that they still need to come here to the Etihad, but there are still many games to go."

Those games include a home game against Spurs in early May for Liverpool and a Manchester Derby for City, whose fixture list is perhaps less filled with landmines than that of the team right behind them. Since losing their opening two games, Guardiola's side have not particularly wobbled, losing four games in total and generally following defeat with a run of impressive results. Statistical models such as FiveThirtyEight's still make them strong frontrunners, perhaps for that reason, but this defeat will certainly have brought renewed belief to Anfield.

The fight for fourth

Assuming there is indeed one Champions League qualification spot up for grabs -- Chelsea have not always been easy on the eye recently but they have picked up the results they need -- Spurs will now view themselves as right among the leading contenders to snare that prize.

Though Wolverhampton Wanderers might bristle at their exclusion (they just do not score enough), it is likely that the Premier League's fourth place team will come from a quartet of Manchester United, West Ham, Arsenal and Tottenham.

Currently, it is the Red Devils who occupy fourth spot but that is as much a reward for attendance as anything else. They have collected 43 points from 25 games, two more than both Spurs and Arsenal have played. They will be three ahead in the games played column by Sunday when they face Yorkshire rivals Leeds United and their pursuit of top four has faltered somewhat in the new year amid talk of poor morale and cliques in the dressing room. 

The remainder of February and March may be make-or-break for Ralf Rangnick's side, who have to Manchester City, Spurs and Liverpool in consecutive Premier League games as well as fitting in a Champions League round of 16 second leg against Atletico Madrid. Find form there and the picture might clear up, but even then there would be matches with Arsenal and Chelsea to come.

It's perhaps for that reason that they join the other United side as more unlikely contenders for fourth. West Ham have faltered in recent weeks and have won just one of their last five league games. They may sit fifth but they have played the most league games at 26, yet they are still level on points with Arsenal. Jarrod Bowen aside, their key attackers seem to struggling for form at just the wrong moment.

That could not be said for Spurs after Kane's brace, but the man himself identified what may be the most significant issue with this team. "We can't just put in one-off performances like this, it needs to be consistently game after game," he said. "It's about learning, but it'll definitely give everyone a boost. Hopefully we can take that into Wednesday's game [against Burnley]."

Their other problem might simply be that they are not particularly effective at taking points from those around them. So far this season, they have lost to all of the other top four chases as well as Chelsea (twice).

That might augur well for Arsenal, who still have to travel up the Seven Sisters Road for the delayed north London derby at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Right now, they are the masters of their own fate, a point from fourth having played two fewer matches than Manchester United. Those games in hand, however, include Liverpool and Chelsea as well. Mikel Arteta will surely be looking at the upcoming fixtures between now and late April (when they play Manchester United and West Ham back to back) as the moments to apply scoreboard pressure.

With three months of the season remaining, the shape of the major races at the top of the table is now set. However, as Saturday's thriller at the Etihad showed, the only certainty is that there will be plenty of surprises to shake up these two significant battles.