Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: PA
Pep Guardiola believes Manchester City could be in store for another nail-biting final day when the Premier League title is decided on goal difference, but he has told his players that they must first emerge unscathed from a "terrible" February.
City will leapfrog leaders Liverpool on goal difference and return to the top of the table for the first time since early December if they beat Everton at Goodison Park tonight.
Liverpool's 1-1 draw at West Ham United, which followed City's resounding 3-1 win over Arsenal 24 hours earlier, provided an unexpected boost for the champions in their bid to become the first top-flight side for a decade to retain the title.
But Guardiola is expecting a nip-and-tuck championship race going to the wire and would not be surprised if it was ultimately settled on goal difference.
The last time that happened, in 2011-'12, City prevailed in dramatic circumstances, coming from 2-1 behind against Queens Park Rangers to win 3-2 and finish above Manchester United thanks to their superior goal difference.
"I'm pretty sure the winner will be the last fixture or the last two - I'm sure of that," said the City manager, who is hammering home to his players the importance of not only winning but trying to swell their goal difference.
"The first message (to the players) is to win the game and the second one is, 'If you can score, score, and, if you can avoid to concede, do it'.
"The Premier League could go (down) to goal difference, I agree. We are not going to say to the guys today we have to win 25-0. I never said that. First you have to win the game but then, second, try (to boost the goal difference) because it can happen."
Five of Guardiola's seven title successes - with City, Bayern Munich and Barcelona - have involved sauntering to glory by a winning margin of at least nine points.
But the Catalan can see parallels between this season's battle against Liverpool and the fight his Barcelona faced against Manuel Pellegrini's Real Madrid in 2009-'10.
On that occasion, the teams were level on points after 25 and 30 matches in La Liga and boasted near-identical goal differences.
Only a point separated them after 35 games and the race eventually went down to the final day, with Barcelona triumphing.
Like City this term, Barcelona had to navigate a hectic schedule that season and played a total of 11 more games than Real after reaching the finals of the Club World Cup, Copa del Rey and Champions League.
With tonight's game against Everton followed by the visit of Chelsea to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, and a league match against West Ham on February 27 following an FA Cup fifth-round tie and the League Cup final against Chelsea, Guardiola believes City face a make-or-break month. And he is backing his players to embrace the fixture congestion and emerge with an extra spring in their step come March.
Guardiola let rip during a 30-minute dressing-room inquest after the shock 2-1 defeat at Newcastle last week and he was delighted with their reaction against Arsenal.
"I trust my players, have the feeling that when I put them under pressure they react good. They accept the challenge. When we speak and say, 'OK, show me again how good you are, come on', they do it and they try. If we win (against Everton), we are top of the league. Who could think that? Not a month or two ago.
"The true lesson of that is never give up and focus on what you have to do. Forget about the other ones and never give up."
© Daily Telegraph, London