A win here would fuel Liverpool’s belief even more. Photo: STRINGER / AFP
A win here would fuel Liverpool’s belief even more. Photo: STRINGER / AFP

Weakened City to face Anfield maelstrom

A title cannot be claimed after 12 games. But in the unending rollercoaster that is the Premier League, this weekend could be the first big drop that sets your guts into your throat.

Manchester City travel to Liverpool in the season's first big heavyweight title bout.

Just as it was last season, this game is too close to finely balanced to predict. Six points may separate first and second right now - but Liverpool let a seven-point lead slip last year, meaning Pep Guardiola will find little fear in this differential.

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This is the point in a story where we could try a bit of long-distance psychology, trying to dissect the minds of elite athletes engaged in a 10-month struggle and how one victory could define a season through the mental effect of taking three points off your closest competition.

But that would be nonsense. The Premier League is no straight track race; it's a rolling, winding marathon assault course. If it's not the log balance or the monkey bars that get you, it's the freezing water or a twisted ankle.

Armchair psychologists and rival fans love to claim it was their team that inflicted the killing strike - see Liverpool last year: it was the stifled draw at Old Trafford, the emotional stalemate against Everton, the bottled deadlock against West Ham, the millimetre goal line call against City.

If any of these results had gone Liverpool's way, the league title wait might have already ended. That's the point - any of those results would have made a difference, the collection of missed chances that writes the story of a season.

The importance of this weekend's clash is inflated because one of these two will win the league. We know this already. Depending on the result, after 11 games the gap will be nine, six or three points. Regardless, Liverpool will still be on top and City will still believe they can catch them.

After this fixture, City's Christmas run-in includes Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Leicester. Liverpool face Crystal Palace, Everton, and Leicester. All teams capable of swerving across the title leaders and creating havoc.

 

Raheem Sterling will be a constant threat for City. Photo: AP Photo/Luca Bruno
Raheem Sterling will be a constant threat for City. Photo: AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Even the two coaches have been treading around the hype. This is not the old days of Alex Ferguson winding up anyone stepping on his turf, or Jose Mourinho vindictively lashing out. There have been no Kevin Keegan meltdowns or Rafael Benitez list of conspiracies.

The closest we have come to mud being slung is Guardiola insinuating that Liverpool striker Sadio Mane is a bit of a diver. A comment he attempted to soften just days later. Jurgen Klopp's comeback of "not mentioning tactical fouls" was hardly a dagger to the heart.

Neither has there been much bad blood on the field; no Roy Keane tackles, pizza being thrown or pitch-length sprints to celebrate in front of rival fans.

The competition between City and Liverpool is no less intense but rather it is directed inward; both are more focused on their own achievements than beating the other. The lack of historical enmity means the clubs' individual ambitions are not intertwined.

This column wrote a little about schadenfreude a few weeks ago but this fixture so far remains bracingly free of jealousy. For both sets of coaches, players and fans, it appears their own success is not co-dependant on the other's failure.

Yet even without that bittersweet emotion, this game is still one to make the mouth water. From top to bottom, Liverpool and City are arguably the best football teams in the world at this moment, both with talent to spare and fuelled by the belief only success can bring.

 

 

Can John Stones keep Liverpool’s front three quiet? Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images
Can John Stones keep Liverpool’s front three quiet? Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

 

Everyone knows how Klopp will approach this game - but how will Guardiola? Having suffered at Anfield previously, in last season's visit City's focus was on stifling Liverpool at the expense of their own attacking style.

For Guardiola, the football autocrat, the swirling emotion of Klopp's Anfield is unacceptable; so instead he ceded possession (the 51 per cent of the ball remains their lowest in a Premier League game under Guardiola) and opted for control. City now haven't won at this ground in 19 attempts.

Given City's current defensive concerns it wouldn't be a surprise to see them attempt the same again.

But without Aymeric Laporte, John Stones and Fernandinho have made for an unconvincing central partnership and Liverpool's capacity to apply critical pressure here would be a major concern for a team planning on placidly knocking it around the back four in hope of sucking the atmosphere out of the game.

 

David Silva‘s absence is a big blow for City. Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images
David Silva‘s absence is a big blow for City. Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Those tactical fouls Klopp mentioned might become even more scrutinised against a Liverpool unit that simply won't stop running, with City's current holding midfielder Rodri likely to miss the game through injury, along with influential attacker David Silva.

Also missing will be leftback Aleks Zinchenko and possibly even first choice goalkeeper Ederson.

Of course, Liverpool are not without their own problems at the back, with goals conceded against Aston Villa and Genk midweek both coming from corners being met by an unmarked header at the far post. Man City have scored six goals from set pieces so far this season.

The Reds have only had three clean sheets in all competitions this season. Virgil van Dijk's status is unassailable but changing his partner between Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren and Joe Gomez appears to have affected the Reds' consistency.

Even for a team boasting a famous capacity for an incredible comeback, not conceding the first goal is paramount for Liverpool this weekend.

Being forced to chase the game will hand Guardiola the control he desires. So, with an extra day's rest from the Champions League and importantly no European travel, expect Klopp's side to start a fire from the first whistle. European champions is one thing - but one desire burns more brightly than anything else inside Anfield.

The big question is whether Guardiola's side can - or even really want to - match that intensity at this stage of the race.

Two points clear in their Champions League group, there is a suspicion City's focus might lie elsewhere this season. And with two thirds of the season still to go, this rollercoaster has more stomach-churning drops to come.

News Corp Australia


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