It is somewhat befitting that the frantic Christmas period of football culminates in the biggest game of the season so far, as unbeaten Liverpool travel to Manchester City looking to strengthen their grip on the Premier League trophy.
After a December full of goals, red cards and diving controversies, the fixture gods have blessed us with one more festive treat before a brief period of respite as the FA Cup takes centre stage over the weekend. Can the Reds extend their best ever start to a Premier League season? Or can City breathe renewed fire into the title race?
It is Pep Guardiola vs Jürgen Klopp. Champions vs challengers in one of the most eagerly anticipated clashes in recent history. Who will emerge victorious?
The hosts go into this fixture like a wounded animal, reeling from a poor run of results and injury setbacks. After three losses in four games, Guardiola’s side got back on track with a relatively comfortable 3-1 win over Southampton.
Fortunately for City, they can rely on a near full strength squad, with their star midfield trio of Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne all returning from injuries in the last few days. Questions remain over selection issues in defence, particularly at left-back after Benjamin Mendy suffering from a long-term knee problem.
In midfield and attack however, they have their full arsenal of weapons at their disposal, and that will certainly be cause for major concern for the visitors tonight.
On the contrary, the current Premier League leaders come into this fixture on fire. After Divock Origi’s fortuitous late winner in the Merseyside Derby at the start of December, Liverpool won all six of their remaining league games for the month, including a 5-1 demolition of Arsenal last time out.
Having picked up 27 points from a possible 27 in their last nine league games, the Reds have put themselves in their best ever position to win their first Premier League title.
Still unbeaten after 20 games, whilst only drawing three times, they are on track to beat the points tally of Manchester City’s centurions of last season – the first time ever to pick up 100 points in a single Premier League campaign.
They will be looking forward to this clash full of confidence, safe in the knowledge that defeat would not be a disaster, given they would still be six points ahead of Tottenham Hotspurs and four points clear of City.
How can Manchester City win?
A characteristic of Manchester City under Pep Guardiola is their high defensive line, pushing their opponents backwards and keeping the ball as far away as their goal as possible.
However, in the reverse fixture earlier in the season, a disappointing affair that ended 0-0 after Riyad Mahrez missed a late penalty, Guardiola started with a deeper defensive line and his players performed well and stifled Liverpool’s attacking threat. However, with the onus on them as the home side, and because a draw is not a good enough result tonight, expect City to be more purposeful in both attack and defence.
Having said that, City will still be wary of Liverpool’s threat on the counter, and will probably still sit slightly deeper than they normally would against lesser opposition.
Barring any late selection surprises, Guardiola’s favourite 4-1-4-1 system will be in operation tonight, with Fernandinho sitting in front of the defensive line with David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne pushing further forward. Whilst in position however, expect City to try and overwhelm Liverpool.
With the Merseysiders likely to field a midfield three of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum (Klopp’s favoured selection in important away games), if City can get past the first phase of the counter-press coming from Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, they can vastly outnumber their opponents in the middle of the park. Kyle Walker and whoever plays left-back for the hosts (Danilo, Aymeric Laporte or Oleksandr Zinchenko) can push inwards in the midfield, granting their wingers more space out wide.
Alternatively, City can drop into a back three, with Walker pushing on as a wing-back, and Raheem Sterling joining Sergio Aguero up top. It is a case of high risk and high reward, but with such an array of attacking talent in their ranks, it is a strategy that could pay dividends.
How can Liverpool win?
Unlike the Champions, Liverpool can play in two different formations, completely dependent on team selection. The tried and tested midfield three of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner operating in tandem with the attacking trident that needs no introduction is what helped carry Liverpool to the Champions League final, and is a system that Klopp prefers in the games against better opposition.
However, away from home this midfield has struggled occasionally, most notably away at PSG when they were dominated in the Parc de Princes. IF they do go with a 4-3-3 formation, Liverpool will look to be compact, pressing high up the pitch and staying true to Klopp’s mantra that attack is the first line of defence.
A point would be a great result for the Reds, and whilst they never play for the draw, a more measured and pragmatic approach may be the best way of achieving this.
More recently, Liverpool have deployed a 4-2-3-1 system, with Wijnaldum and Fabinho working together as the defensive midfielders and the in-form Xherdan Shaqiri playing on the right, with Salah as the central striker. With the Egyptian playing higher up the pitch, Liverpool would look to exploit moments of transition.
If they can turn over the ball quickly, long balls over the top for Salah to chase would not only relieve pressure, but can also lead to scoring opportunities on the counter-attack. They can surround Manchester City in midfield, force the error and then immediately break, taking advantage of the gaps that the hosts will leave between midfield and defence. Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold will surge forward from full-back in transition and whip in dangerous balls for the attackers to capitalise upon.
Despite being billed as a do-or-die scenario, the fact is that regardless of the result, the Premier League title will not be won or lost tonight. Liverpool will almost certainly have to endure a blip in form at some point, leaving the door ajar for Manchester City or Spurs to swoop in.
Nevertheless, the pressure is more on the hosts than it is on the visitors, and should Liverpool leave the Etihad with their unbeaten record intact, then this really could be their year.