The only thing better than a Friday? The Friday before the weekend matchup between England’s best teams: Manchester City and Liverpool.
The two sides have firmly established themselves as the Premier League’s cream of the crop the past few seasons. One can only imagine what each side could have achieved individually if it weren’t for the other.
Pep Guardiola’s side may have won the quadruple in the 2017-2018 season had it not been for Liverpool eliminating them in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. On the other hand, Jurgen Klopp’s side finished with the third-most points in Premier League history at the time in the 2018-2019 season, only to be bettered by Guardiola’s side by one point thus eliminating Liverpool’s hopes at hoisting the Premier League and Champions League trophies in the same season.
The rivalry has become an absolute must-watch for football fans all over the world. No matchup in recent memory in the Premier League has come close to the competitiveness of this one. It’s been such a long time since we’ve seen two teams dominate England’s top division like this.
Nothing has changed this season. Both teams have faced their share of struggles this season, highlighted by Manchester City’s 5-2 loss to Leicester City and Liverpool’s 7-2 thrashing at the hands of Aston Villa. Nonetheless, both remain heavy favourites to once again win the league.
Both teams have hit a decent run of form coming off 3+ goal victories in the Champions League, making Sunday’s game all the more intriguing. With that being said, here are the biggest storylines ahead of this weekend’s matchup at the Etihad:
Klopp vs. Guardiola
This Klopp-Guardiola rivalry has become easily the most enthralling managerial contest in the Premier League since Mourinho vs. Sir Alex Ferguson. These battles date back to their tenures with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich and have picked up steam in England.
Despite their rivalry, the two managers clearly hold strong mutual respect for one another. While each have come to appreciate the genius of the other, they also understand that the trophy cabinets of each would be double in size if it weren’t for the other.
The two managers put more thought into this game than any other. We’ve seen both set their teams up more defensively, producing more chess matches than horse races.
Will Klopp line up with a more defensive-minded midfield (perhaps Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, and James Milner) to account for the loss of Van Dijk? How will Guardiola line up his side to combat the front 3 (or maybe 4) of the Reds?
I would expect Klopp to play more conservatively and capitalize on Manchester City’s vulnerable backline on the counter-attack. On the other hand, I expect Guardiola to target the Liverpool fullbacks in one-on-one situations.
Oh, how the defensive injury tables have turned
Assuming you haven’t lived under a rock for the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard that Liverpool are without Virgil van Dijk for the foreseeable future. Having sold Dejan Lovren in the summer, Joel Matip struggling for fitness, and Fabinho succumbing to a hamstring strain, Jurgen Klopp has been forced to look to the academy for options.
At this time last year, Manchester City were the ones struggling to find a healthy centre-back. Similar to Liverpool, club captain Vincent Kompany had departed while Aymeric Laporte had also suffered a long-term knee injury, forcing Fernandinho to play in the heart of the defence.
For Liverpool, Rhys Williams has featured prominently, with the 18-year-old performing admirably in a 5-0 victory against Atalanta on Wednesday. Furthermore, Nat Phillips staked his claim for a start in a MOTM performance last weekend against West Ham.
However, Manchester City are a different beast. Can we really expect these two inexperienced defenders to cope with Sterling, De Bruyne, and co.?
Ultimately, the answer to these questions may determine who comes out on top on Sunday.
Other Injury Question Marks
Van Dijk isn’t the only notable injury in this matchup.
Liverpool to have Thiago back, but he is yet to complete a full training session. The Spanish maestro provides a creative outlet that no one else in Liverpool’s team can offer.
Joel Matip also earned a spot on the bench in Liverpool’s Champions League tie on Tuesday. Will Jurgen Klopp trust him to start after a spell on the sidelines?
For Manchester City, the key injury question is Sergio Aguero. Aguero has always thrived against Liverpool and his inclusion would be monumental for the Blues.
Appearances by any of these players would have a huge impact on the tactics of each team.
Will the lack of fans take the sting out of the rivalry?
This fixture is one that always has the stadiums shaking. The buzz for the country’s most anticipated game often creates an aura of initial nerves for the players.
Is it fair to assume that this anxiety won’t be present due to the absence of fans? We saw Manchester City batter Liverpool 4-0 at the Etihad in July, although Liverpool had little to play for at that point.
However, Manchester City will be disappointed that they won’t have their home support to cheer them on, especially if Liverpool are able to host fans in the reverse fixture.
Which side will be more clinical?
As previously mentioned, many of the battles between the two sides don’t produce the number of chances that one would expect from such talented attacking sides.
The chess match analogy is appropriate, with each side seeking to prevent the relentless attack of the other.
Therefore, it makes it even more crucial that each team finishes the chances that they get.
As good as Liverpool’s attacking players are, the likes of Mane and Salah have always been successful due to the sheer number of chances they create—not necessarily the frequency with which they convert those chances. They may not be able to get away with that in this fixture.
The same holds true for some of Manchester City’s players (notably Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus). This is where Aguero’s health becomes all the more important, as the Argentinian is undoubtedly more clinical than anyone else on the pitch (although Jota may deserve a shout based on recent performances).
It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if this game finished 1-0 or something similar, so the side that can take their chances will have a huge advantage.
Which star will rise to the occasion?
We know the names. Aguero, Sterling, De Bruyne, Mahrez on one side. Salah, Mane, Firmino, Jota on the other.
All are capable of 10/10 performances, but in all honesty, so is just about anyone else on the pitch.
We’ve seen many of the prime suspects shine in this fixture in the past: De Bruyne last season, Aguero the year before, Salah the year before that.
However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a more unheralded star seize the spotlight in the way that Fabinho did in Liverpool’s 3-0 win. Potential candidates include Fernandinho or Kyle Walker for Manchester City or perhaps Jordan Henderson or Andy Robertson for Liverpool.
In a match with so much quality yet so evenly matched, this X-factor may be the one that tips the balance in favour of one side or the other.
The one thing we do know is that there is no shortage of storylines for this matchup. We’re in for quite the treat come Sunday night.