The cauldron that is Anfield burned Pep Guardiola and Manchester City in their Champions League quarterfinal tie last April, leaving the biggest blot on their historically unprecedented season of Premier League dominance.
The reigning champions return to Liverpool on Sunday, perhaps at full strength, as they look to exorcise the demons their closest pursuers have unleashed upon them in recent matchups.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
“We won the last three games against City – twice in the Champions League and once in the league. After none of these games do you go into the dressing room and think, ‘Now we’ve got it, now we know how to beat Manchester City,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp told the club’s official website.
“There is no real way; there isn’t one thing you have to do so you can beat them. That’s not there. You need a fantastic football team – which I have, thank God – with an outstanding character, ready for being really brave, ready for making mistakes in a very difficult game against an outstanding opponent.”
Both teams have taken 19 of a possible 21 points through their first seven matches, with City leading on goal difference. Though third-place Chelsea have been surprising interlopers early, Guardiola’s Citizens and Klopp’s Reds have given every indication they will be the last two standing to lift the Premier League trophy come May.
And head-to-head, Liverpool have had the upper hand of late. The Reds dealt City three of their seven losses across all competitions last season, including a 4-3 victory at Anfield that was also Guardiola’s first league loss. But the other two also stand out, as Liverpool advancing 5-1 on aggregate was a key part of their runners-up finish to Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
The first leg, also played at Anfield, was everything about the heritage Liverpool have as five-time European champions and everything Manchester City desire by claiming “Ol’ Big Ears” for the first time to validate the estimated £1.3 billion in player signings since Sheikh Mansour bought the team a decade ago.
The white-hot intensity started before City even arrived on the grounds as their coach was pelted by Liverpool supporters en route. Guardiola then made two of the few – but most certainly his biggest since his arrival — mistakes in tactics and lineups as he left ex-Liverpool attacking midfielder Raheem Sterling on the bench for deep-lying Ilkay Gundogan and started a still untested Aymeric Laporte at left back with Reds striker Mohamed Salah ready to pounce.
Liverpool blazed a trail of carnage through City’s half as Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sadio Mane all scored in the first 31 minutes, and they protected the 3-0 scoreline. City were unable to overturn the deficit the following week at the Etihad, losing 2-1, and were left to take out their frustrations on the Premier League – their sole consolation reaching 100 points in their final match.
Since that meeting, Liverpool have only gotten stronger by taking a page from City’s playbook and spending lavishly the last two seasons. Alisson has been worth every bit the £56 million from AS Roma, while the patience of waiting a year for midfielder Naby Keita has also paid dividends.
Virgil van Dijk has been a towering presence in central defence since his January arrival for £75 million, and while Klopp has brought along £44 million signing Fabinho slowly, all the pieces are in place for Liverpool to win their first title since 1990.
Just don’t expect them to say they will continue dominating Manchester City while trying to do it.
“It’s a new season,” left back Andy Robertson said. “Last season we did very well against them. The two quarter-finals were very good, especially at home when we went 3-0 up. We did get one over on them last season but they ended up with the Premier League and that’s what everyone strives for.
“They are the champions and they’ll have a game plan. But hopefully our game plan is better on the day.”
The plan will certainly need to be better than the one Wednesday, when Liverpool had a true clunker and lost 1-0 in Champions League play at Italian side Napoli. In contrast to the loss and draw, respectively, last week versus Chelsea in which both high-quality matches turned on moments of individual brilliance, Klopp’s team were lacklustre throughout and failed to register a shot on target before conceding in the 90th minute.
The loss again raised concerns about Salah’s form as the Egypt international has gone four matches without a goal in all competitions. He has only three goals in 10 matches, but with goals in all three wins over City last season, Klopp is optimistic the goals will flow soon.
“I am completely relaxed,” the German said. “I didn’t say Mo should relax because he has to work hard, but that’s what he is doing. It is a completely normal situation, nothing to worry about and I am relaxed about it.”
Liverpool have conceded just three goals in league play and have not been scored upon in Anfield since February, a stretch of 751 minutes.
City, though, may have all hands on deck to break that run as attacking midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and left back Benjamin Mendy practised this week. De Bruyne, who had 12 goals and 20 assists in all competitions last season, has been sidelined with a knee injury suffered in practice after City’s season-opening victory. Mendy has missed the last six games with a knee injury after registering four assists in the first four matches.
Guardiola’s team have won four on the bounce since their surprising home loss to Lyon to open Champions League group play, and they scrambled to rally past Hoffenheim 2-1 on Tuesday. David Silva bagged the winner on 87 minutes, but Sergio Aguero’s equaliser in the eighth was also vital as City conceded almost right after kickoff.
Guardiola, though, thinks his defence will be key to maintaining their unbeaten start in the Premier League, which makes sense considering Salah, Mane and Roberto Firmino accounted for seven of the nine Liverpool goals last term.
“The big difference is how many times you lose the ball,” the Spaniard noted to City’s official website. “In Champions League games, they didn’t lose the ball. These guys are so dangerous and connect between them – Mane and Salah love running behind and they do it really well.
“We have to defend, but not in the approach play because it’s boring and we have to be ourselves. In this type of game, we must be ourselves. They are good and even though we are City and a good team, they also do many good things. To minimise those three players on Sunday, we have to attack and be as good as possible.”
Aguero has a team-high six goals, with three coming in the last four matches. Both Sterling and Leroy Sane have used their pace to terrorise opposing defenders on the flanks, combining for a goal and six assists in that stretch. City lead the Premier League with 21 goals – six more than Liverpool — but also have matched the Reds with just three conceded and carry a 330-minute shutout streak in league play dating back to their 2-1 victory over Newcastle United on Sept. 1.
Anfield, though, has been a house of horrours for Manchester City, who have failed to record a clean sheet there in the Premier League era. They have lost six on the bounce in all competitions and are winless in their last 15 league visits (0-4-11). City’s lone victory in 23 trips to Liverpool (1-6-16) in the Premier League era was a 2-1 victory in 2003 when Nicolas Anelka completed a brace in the 94th minute.
Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are slight favourites at 29/20 odds, while the reigning champions are 17/10 underdogs to bring all three points back to the blue side of Manchester and grab sole possession of first. The odds of the teams moving together to 20 points into the international break are 5/2.
Befitting the quality of these two sides, there is little separating them in terms of odds. A Liverpool win with more than 2.5 goals is the top choice at 12/5, closely followed by a City win over 2.5 (14/5). There is also respect for both teams’ defences, as a 0-0 or 1-1 draw is pulling down 21/5 odds, shorter than a low-scoring Liverpool victory (11/2) or a Man City one (13/2).
Despite his recent drough, Salah is still the top choice to score the first goal of the match at 4/1, though Aguero is riding hot on his heels at 9/2. A pair of understudy forwards — Daniel Sturridge for Liverpool and Gabriel Jesus for City — are second at 11/2, while Sterling, Firmino and Mane ate all 13/2. Two more expected reserves — City’s Riyad Mahrez and Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri are 7/1 and 8/1, respectively, while Sane could be a sleeper pick at 9/1 for the first goal.
Salah (5/4) and Aguero (13/10) also lead the way to find the back of the net over the 90 minutes, while Sturridge and Jesus are the only other players with shorter than 2/1 odds to score at 17/10. Sterling, Firmino and Mane are at the aforementioned 2/1, with Mahrez just off the trio at 21/10. Though he has practised this week, De Bruyne was not on the board for scoring in the 90 minutes as of late Friday night Chicago time.
There are so many directions to break down this match, from how the four wide backs are going to stop the opposing attacks, to De Bruyne and Mendy’s potential retrun (This space believes Mendy will start at left back and De Bruyne will be among the reseves) to potentially Dejan Lovren and van Dijk being paired in central defence for the first time this season (This space believes it will happen) to who Guardiola selects in midfield along with Fernandinho and David Silva (Gundogan is the frontrunner, edging out Bernardo Silva) to whether Keita is healthy enough to play (yes) to even whether Klopp puts Fabinho among his reserves or even starts him over Keita.
If there was one surprise that came out of Liverpool’s last three matches, it was not the lack of victory — that happens to every team at some point — but the fact Liverpool looked tired against Naples. The Reds deserved to lose that match, but not because they were looking ahead to this one. They were simply second-best.
On the other side, Guardiola seems to have come to grips with the fact City cannot match the numbers they put up last season in recording 100 points in the Premier League and winning 32 matches and losing only two. Yet their Champions League struggles in a group they were supposed to run roughshod on has been puzzling. Whether it’s City playing down to Lyon and Hoffenheim or the two sides playing above themselves and making City graft, this is the match where the Citizens could be found out if they do not get stuck in from kickoff.
The place where City can win this match is in the midfield by holding possession. Guardiola was absolutely correct in saying Liverpool did not lose the ball in that first-leg Champions League tie, but one of Klopp’s strategies was to let City have the ball because Liverpool’s midfield is not creative on the ball. That is hidden by the high press into forcing opponents into mistakes, where the transition relies on fewer passes and more pace to create scoring opportunities.
Another facet of their game City would be well-served to utilise is Ederson’s long-range distribution. There are few — as in, count on one hand — who can deliver pinpoint sidewinders covering more than half the pitch like the Brasil international, and even if City lose possession on the first ball or the second ball, Ederson can send that initial long-range kick to areas of minimal danger if Liverpool do recover possession.
The slight public chafe Guardiola has had about Liverpool having City’s number last term probably is far greater in private because that’s who he is, a relentless perfectionist. He has achieved one of the things he set out to do when he arrived on the blue side of this city three seasons ago and evolved English football from blood and thunder to something a little more graceful.
Not that City lack the steel to go with their silk — Vincent Kompany and Fernandinho are a formidable spine, and Stones is getting up to speed in that regard — but the Citizens are still the reigning champions and Guardiola’s hunger to be European champions en route to another title is a strong galvanising force.
Liverpool may have found that matching steel with Alisson and van Dijk, and it will be curious to see if Klopp trusts Lovren in such a big spot with only 90 minutes of football under his belt. Gomez has rarely put a wrong foot forward in central defence, but City are unlike few sides in the world, and having two of Europe’s best central defenders available means you use two of Europe’s best central defenders.
If Liverpool are able to keep their offensive thrust narrow through Mane, Firmino and Salah, there is a strong likelihood they will continue their winning ways at Anfield and extend City’s misery. But if City can ping the ball wide to either Sane or Sterling to let them attack Liverpool’s wide backs and stretch that back four, then the reigning champions could finally come through with three points and an end to the hoodoo at the Kop.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: LIVERPOOL 2, Manchester City 1.