Such is the abundance of quality and firepower in the Premier League now, it seems as though there are genuine box office matches every other week. The New Year kicked off with an absorbing four-goal spectacle at the Emirates, and now Liverpool host league leaders Manchester City in a contest that has all the makings of a similarly thrilling affair.
Pep Guardiola’s side travel to Anfield looking to continue an unbeaten run that has lasted 22 matches already this season, while the Merseysiders are blessed with the pressing, pace and ingenuity that could be their undoing. It is all set up perfectly…
Salah and Liverpool are City’s kryptonite
It seems bizarre to suggest that a five-goal thumping at the Etihad could hold the key to finally ending City’s unbeaten run, but up until Sadio Mane’s rather harsh dismissal Liverpool were the better team back in September. They found space in behind City’s high line, pressed aggressively, forced errors, and should have scored when Mohamed Salah was put through one-on-one.
Speaking after the match, Klopp felt his side had found weaknesses in the City team but failed to exploit them: ‘Both teams didn’t defend well, both teams were not compact. But we had a lot of chances, City had two yellow cards on the 18-yard line. It was very unlucky for us in a lot of moments. I told the boys at half-time, if we’d been completely spot on, I thought we could have been in the lead in the first half. We should have.’
Premier League top scorers 2017/18
At that point, Salah had yet to hit the goalscoring form he is now in and there were some serious question marks over his finishing. Now, only Harry Kane has scored more Premier League goals and the Egyptian stands out as the most dangerous player in English football right now. With City’s back-line still hampered by injuries, Salah’s blend of pure pace and increasingly confident finishing could be decisive.
Who replaces Coutinho?
Philippe Coutinho’s £142m move to Barcelona has seen Liverpool’s Fantastic Four reduced to a slightly more humble Terrific Trio. The Brazilian will undoubtedly be a huge miss for Klopp’s side for the remainder of the season, though there was always a sense that his real worth came against those lower-end-of-the-league minnows who parked the bus rather than matches against rivals – even if he did score more goals against Man City (5) than any other opponent.
Understandably, Klopp has not tried to sign a like-for-like replacement for Coutinho, who was a rare mix of quick-footed Samba trickery and long-range booming shots. In his absence, Liverpool are likely to revert to the 4-3-3 they played at the Etihad, with a front three of Mane, Salah and Roberto Firmino. That feels sufficiently threatening, while it allows Klopp to bolster his midfield in an effort to disrupt City’s ball possession and control. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may get the nod to provide even more speed in transition.
Is City’s intensity dropping ahead of their biggest hurdle?
There have been just a few signs that City may not be completely unstoppable after all. Both Burnley and Bristol City took the lead in their respective Cup matches, Watford scored a late consolation and Crystal Palace were a stoppage-time penalty away from ending their unbeaten run. In the FA Cup third round, John Stones’s miskick rather comically presented Ashley Barnes with a one-on-one that seemed to typify a slight dip in concentration and intensity across the team.
From the sidelines, it looks like Pep Guardiola has noticed it too and the loss of livewire Gabriel Jesus could have a bigger effect than we realised. But the runaway Premier League leaders are in a position where they do not have to be at their best in every game, and they have shown that they are capable of raising their level when required and especially in the biggest of matches. They had kept just one clean sheet in six games and had lost to Shakhtar when Tottenham visited, yet tore Spurs apart in a performance full of swagger and energy.
Most Premier League goals scored 2017/18
Liverpool are in a much better place than that Tottenham team, though, and a trip to Anfield represents the biggest hurdle City will face in the second half of the campaign – both the Emirates and Wembley are a distant second. Arsenal’s Invincibles went a full season, and 49 games in total, without suffering defeat. City’s run currently stands at 30 matches going back to last season. If anyone can stop them, it’s this Liverpool team at Anfield.
First big test for Van Dijk
Virgil van Dijk had an unforgettable debut for Liverpool, scoring a late winning goal against rivals Everton in front of the Kop. But the true test of whether the £75m man deserves his mantle as the most expensive defender of all time will come against Man City. In his last appearance against the league leaders, at the end of November with Southampton, he helped direct Kevin De Bruyne’s free-kick into his own goal and did not get out to close down Raheem Sterling’s late winner.
Though both an elegant and extremely powerful defender, Van Dijk’s form for Southampton never returned to his pre-injury level and he will be tested to the extreme against City. Liverpool’s style requires a high line to back up the hard-pressing forwards, and in turn that has a tendency to create one-on-one battles at the back and expose individual mistakes. Van Dijk will have to be absolutely on point to keep out Sergio Aguero & Co., assuming Klopp even trusts him yet.