IN May 2014, second-place Manchester City were pitted against Everton away with just three games left in their season. They were three points behind Liverpool and victory was essential, but Goodison Park had long been a bogey ground and the Toffees a bogey team. Memories of Tim Cahill punching corner flags in celebration loomed large. Even so, the Blues won out 3-2, showing a resolve that ultimately saw them crowned as champions.

Five years later, squaring up to Everton on Merseyside remained an extremely tough proposition even if the fixture had lost some of its fear-factor. At the same stage of the season we’re at now, City were locked in a title tussle with a Liverpool side who had a severe aversion to losing and the parallels between then and now cannot be ignored. A win was essential for Pep Guardiola’s creation, and they duly snatched the three points, showing a resolve that ultimately saw them crowned as champions.

Recent history repeats itself this weekend and City certainly have learned behaviour to mine from as they head down the M62 knowing that a loss will dramatically change the narrative of their latest title charge. Once again Evertonians will flock to their stadium debating whether they actually, deep down would prefer a City win, and once again that debate will become null and void at kick-off as Goodison erupts into a cauldron of noise. And just like in 2019 – a contest staged a mere week after the champions-elect were surprisingly undone at Newcastle – City go into this critical challenge saddled with an unfamiliar feeling, that of self-doubt.

That self-doubt derives from a jolting defeat to Spurs, one that halts the momentum of 15 unbeaten games but before we get to that it is important to put the loss in context. This is still the highest number of clean sheets kept by City under Guardiola to this juncture of a campaign. This is still an extravagantly brilliant side that had some sections of the media recently throwing up their hands in despair, claiming the Premier League was no longer a competitive entity. This is still a complete and multifaceted machine that has put four-plus goals past 14 pummeled opponents in 2021/22 and already racked up 100 goals before February is out.

City to score over 2.5 goals is a good shout at 11/10

That defeat though hurt and hurt a lot and not solely because of the lateness of Harry Kane’s winner. If caveats can be attached to their other two league losses – with a truncated pre-season contributing to their opening day downing at Tottenham and Crystal Palace pulling off a smash-and-grab that will always occur at least once a season – this was the first occasion since losing to Chelsea last May where City were out-thought and neutralized. This was the first time for ten months in the league when City were reduced and ineffectual.

It is tempting therefore to believe that the Blues will travel to Merseyside slightly wounded and slightly vulnerable but perhaps the reverse might be true. The last time City lost back-to-back games in the Premier League was in December 2018 because typically they respond, and they respond strongly and there is a very real chance of a side that is threatening to smash all manner of records this term turning up highly motivated and angry. Everton should be fearful of that.

Predicting the correct score-line is always hard but gut instinct says 3-1 to the visitors. At 9/1 it’s worth a punt

Although it should be said that City are not alone in currently dealing with psychological issues that might propel them forward, not inhibit. Since Frank Lampard took the reins at Goodison, his team have been impressive at home and anything but on their travels and if developing Jekyll and Hyde personas is hardly ideal for a promotion scrap it does bode well for Saturday. For the record, the Toffees posted 15 shots on target on home soil against Leeds and Brentford, the latter in the cup. They were rewarded with seven goals. On the road however they managed just three shots on target at Newcastle and Southampton, scoring only once.

In those defeats, Everton were lacklustre, first contributing to their fate then accepting it too easily, but bolstered by the Gladys Street faithful, they have played on the front foot at Goodison, proactive and combative. We can expect the atmosphere to be especially fiery here, what with the champions coming. Manchester City should be fearful of that.

Even if the visitors are fancied, 10/11 for both teams to score acts as a handy insurance bet

Yet, just like with City’s uncharacteristic reversal last week some context is needed should a claim be made that Lampard’s remodeled team is a force to be reckoned with in L4.

Everton’s tally of 22 points after 23 top-flight matches this season is their poorest return for 71 years. Imagine Stevie Wonder or Bill Murray being born. That was how long ago the Toffees were this consistently bad. It is sustained struggle not helped by only keeping three clean sheets at home, whereas City have only failed to score away from the Etihad once all season, in that opening day defeat at Spurs. It is not helped either by only three goals in 23 games coming from Everton’s midfield. City’s midfield have converted a remarkable 29.

And lastly, we return to psychology, because while Lampard can improve shape and strategy he is presently powerless in changing a mental frailty that inevitably sets in from going behind so often and losing so often. Only Watford and Brentford have conceded first more times this season. City meanwhile have broken the deadlock on 20 occasions, winning each and every time.

A tempting 12/5 is available for City to be 1-0 up at the break