Pep Guardiola: Title race would be over had Manchester City not won

• Manager says Liverpool are ‘best team in Europe’
• City close gap to seven points before showdown

Pep Guardiola suggested Manchester City’s Premier League title defence would have been over if they had not beaten Southampton, while admitting it remains precariously balanced going into Thursday’s showdown with Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium.

City won 3-1 thanks to goals from David Silva and Sergio Agüero, either side of a James Ward-Prowse own goal, to cut the gap on Liverpool to seven points and improve on a run that had seen them lose three out of four games in the league.

Guardiola went on to describe Liverpool as the “best team in Europe” at the moment and among “the top four in the world.” The scene for Thursday has been set.

“Given the position of Liverpool, [if] we drop points, it’s over, it’s finished – it would be almost impossible,” Guardiola said. “Of course, I think they’re going to drop points but not too many. And if we want to be there as far as possible until the end, we have to win games.

“Unfortunately we lost our previous two [against Crystal Palace and Leicester] and we have a rival who, at the moment, is the best team in Europe or in the top four in the world and that is Liverpool. That’s why next Thursday is a challenge and we will try to win. If we can sustain our position for as long as possible, we can arrive at the end of the season fighting for the title.

“We are not here to send messages to Liverpool. Liverpool know what they have to do and we know what we have to do. It’s first against second next Thursday. I know the distance is big – seven points – especially because they are so solid and consistent. But it’s a game at home and hopefully the extra help from our people at the Etihad can come.”

Guardiola dwelt on the small margins that are constantly at play. Despite calling the tune for much of the first half, City might have given away a penalty at 1-1 when Ward-Prowse went down under Oleksandr Zinchenko’s challenge – though an award would have been harsh. City scored almost immediately when Ward-Prowse deflected Raheem Sterling’s cross past his own goalkeeper and Agüero quickly made it 3-1.

“The difference [from the Palace and Leicester games] is that Raheem scores at 1-1 [or] what happens is the diving from Prowse is a penalty – you go in at half-time at 1-2 and it’s a disaster, after we played 35 minutes exceptionally,” Guardiola said. “What do you expect when you are Crystal Palace, playing solid, you score an equaliser [for 1-1] and then [Andros] Townsend, from his apartment, scores a second goal! Hats off to him. There’s nothing to add.

“Today we were more aggressive, clearer with the ball. Apart from 10, 15 minutes, which always happens in the Premier League, there were many things I liked. We missed a lot of chances. The game was 6-1, 7-1. You have to score. Liverpool is not going to give us this amount of chances.”

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Guardiola said Kevin De Bruyne had missed the game because of a “muscular problem” and he did not know whether the midfielder would be fit to face Liverpool, while he was relieved the fit-again Fernandinho had avoided injury after a dreadful 85th-minute challenge from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, that resulted in the Southampton captain being sent off.

“Definitely, definitely, it was a relief,” Guardiola said. “I know Pierre. We were together at Bayern Munich. He’s a fantastic guy. But it is what it is.”