2018-19 EPL Match Day 8 Preview — Liverpool (6-1-0) vs. Manchester City (6-1-0)

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.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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.

PREDICTION

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.

And exhale.

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.

OTHER MATCH DAY 8 PREVIEWS:

Watford (4-1-2) vs. Bournemouth (4-1-2)
Leicester City (4-0-3) vs. Everton (2-3-2)
Manchester United (3-1-3) vs. Newcastle United (0-2-5)
Fulham (1-2-4) vs. Arsenal (5-0-2)

2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Manchester City (August 6)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 20th and final preview of 20 EPL teams in 20 days ahead of Friday’s league-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City. Links to previous teams’ previews can be found at the bottom of the page.)

MANCHESTER CITY CITIZENS

Manager: Pep Guardiola (Hire Date: July 1, 2016)
Tenure Length: 10th/20 in Premier League and 30th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 32-4-2, 100 points, 1st in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 106
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-79
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 17 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 2002
Last Relegation: 
2001 (Premier League to First Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Quarterfinal loss (Liverpool)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Champions
2017-18 FA Cup: Fifth-round loss (Wigan Athletic)

2017/18 REVIEW

Manchester City sputtered out of the gate, having to grind out a 2-0 victory at promoted Brighton and Hove Albion to start the season and then was held to a 1-1 draw by Everton to open its home slate as it played 44 minutes down a man after Kyle Walker was given his second yellow card late in the first half.

Then came the winning. A lot of winning.

City reeled off 11 consecutive victories across all competitions with some ridiculous score lines along the way. 5-0 over Liverpool. 4-0 at Feyenoord to open Champions League play. 6-0 at Watford. 5-0 versus Crystal Palace. 7-2 over Stoke City. The Citizens trailed for all of eight minutes of the 990 during their winning streak, which finally came to the end in the Carabao Cup against Wolverhampton, which pushed them to penalties before falling.

Another eight victories followed before a 2-1 loss at Shakhtar Donetsk in a dead rubber to complete Champions League play marked City’s first loss of the 2017-18 season. The good news was that it came at the perfect time ahead of their first Manchester derby at Old Trafford, where Guardiola’s men recorded a 2-1 victory to open up an 11-point chasm between the teams after 16 matches.

City set a Premier League record with their 15th consecutive league win by thrashing Swansea City 4-0 in Wales. They would push that run to 18 matches before a scoreless draw at Crystal Palace on New Year’s Eve in which the flash point was a horrific challenge on Kevin De Bruyne by Palace’s Jason Puncheon in the final minutes that the Belgium international was fortunate to escape serious injury from.

The dream of matching Arsenal’s “Invincibles” would end a fortnight later at Anfield, where Liverpool ran riot for a nine-minute stretch and scored three times to take a 4-1 lead before holding out for a 4-3 victory. That would be a foreshadowing of things to come not in the Premier League race, which was being readily conceded to City despite it being only mid-January, but in Champions League.

Guardiola’s charges would resume their winning ways, reeling off four on the bounce and reaching the Carabao Cup final before a 1-1 draw at always-stubborn Burnley. Manchester City made quick work of Swiss side FC Basel in the round of 16 in Champions League play, winning 4-0 on the road in the first leg to render their 2-1 second-leg defeat moot.

In between, however, was a shocking FA Cup exit at the hands of Wigan Athletic, which brought back the nightmares of losing to a relegated Latics side in the 2013 final. Manchester City took its frustrations of that loss out on Arsenal in emphatic fashion, winning the Carabao Cup final 3-0 at Wembley before handing out another 3-0 beating at the Emirates four days later.

Now champion-elect, Manchester City drew arguably the worst of the remaining Champions League sides in Liverpool, though it was still a winnable tie. Guardiola, however, made his largest mistake of the entire season in the first leg at Anfield, inexplicably starting Ilkay Gundogan as a holding midfielder over Raheem Sterling.

Within a half-hour, Liverpool turned Anfield into the vaunted cauldron it always has been for high-pressure matches and fashioned itself a 3-0 lead. The damage done, the Reds added insult to injury by holding that lead and putting up a clean sheet to make City do the heavy lifting in the second leg.

The hangover of that loss did not carry into the second Manchester derby as City attempted to become the first team to clinch a Premier League title in their 32nd match. The chance to do it against their eternal rivals United at home was a once in a lifetime opportunity that seemed to good to pass up.

For the first half-hour, it was exactly that as Vincent Kompany and Gundogan scored six minutes apart for a two-goal lead, and City nearly ran United out of the Etihad the remainder of the first half. But just as suddenly, the match swung red. Paul Pogba scored twice in two minutes, and Chris Smalling was first to a free kick and beat Ederson and both history and a title would have to wait as United salvaged some pride with a 3-2 victory.

There was no time to wallow, though, as Liverpool was coming to the Etihad and a three-goal deficit had to be overturned. Gabriel Jesus scored in the second minute, and City just applied pressure in waves at Liverpool looking for a second to further the momentum and gain everything to play for. They thought it came when Leroy Sane scored just before halftime, but it was incorrectly chalked off for offsides.

Guardiola went ballistic in complaining to referee Mateu Lahoz, earning himself an ejection at halftime. The combination of the disallowed goal and Guardiola’s thunder and banishment sapped City, who gave up a back-breaking goal to Mohamed Salah before the hour and another to Roberto Firmino late as Liverpool advanced 5-1 on aggregate.

All that was left for City was to play for history and a re-writing of the Premier League record book. They scored 12 goals in winning their next three matches, surpassing the century mark in a 4-1 hiding of West Ham United in their 35th match.

The Premier League presentation trophy was the highlight of a scoreless draw against Huddersfield Town, which all but secured a second season in the top flight with the valuable point, and it left City needing two wins to become the first Premier League team to achieve 100 points.

The first win was a straightforward 3-1 home victory over Brighton and Hove Albion, and the second took a little work. City left it very late as Jesus’ goal in the 94th minute provided the historic 1-0 victory at Southampton that made Guardiola’s side centurions. The 32nd win established a new Premier League record for victories, bettering the mark of Tottenham’s famous 1961 side.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Manchester City Lineup.png

The frightening realisation for the rest of the Premier League, and by extension England for domestic cups and Europe for Champions League play is Guardiola can arguably flex his side into any formation and any lineup he wants on a match-to-match basis.

For argument’s sake, the XI presented here is based on a 4-3-3. Look at the names out there. Now consider the names missing: Bernardo Silva. Aymeric Laporte. New signing Riyad Mahrez. Gundogan. Danilo. Phil Foden. Benjamin Mendy barely played last season due to a torn ACL, yet it is well known he is one of the best at his position and still was good enough to make France’s roster this summer.

A serious case can be made the weakest backup link is Claudio Bravo between the sticks.

If Guardiola opts for a three-man backline, Kompany or Stones gets sacrificed, and given how well Stones played in Russia, it would be hard to sit him even at the expense of Kompany, who himself had a solid run for Belgium when he was 100 percent. This is a team that is going to have 60 percent possession or better in all but a handful of league matches and domestic cups, and Guardiola will relish in the challenge of tinkering his team between those set-ups.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

After spending and spending and spending the past two seasons to build a team Guardiola was confident could run a two-track course between Premier League and Champions League, this summer was refined and specific: Welcome, Mahrez.

The Algeria international’s arrival from Leicester City nearly came in the January window, but the deal feel through late. Six months and £60 million later, City finally got their man — arguably one of the most creative playmakers in the Premier League and the world.

What makes the move interesting is it is entirely possible Mahrez is little more than a rotation player on both tracks except for early in the season as players recover from World Cup responsibilities and again starting in December when the fixtures come fast and heavy. Still, his quality cannot be denied in being the driving force of Leicester City’s run to the Premier League title in 2016 and quarterfinal appearance in the subsequent Champions League.

Mahrez totaled 40 goals and 29 assists in all competitions in his last three seasons with the Foxes and was one of four players to rack up at least 35 goals and 20 assists in league play in that stretch along with Dele Alli, Roberto Firmino and Alexis Sanchez.

More grating to City’s rivals is the Citizens recouped more than half of that outlay by loaning out some of their promising younger players. Third-choice keeper Angus Gunn commanded almost £15 million in going to Southampton, while defenders Pablo Maffeo and Angelino nearly matched that total between them on loans to VfB Stuttgart and PSV Eindhoven, respectively.

Veteran midfielder Yaya Toure was released, and backup keeper Joe Hart is reportedly close to finalising a move to Burnley, which is in need at the position following a long-term shoulder injury to Nick Pope.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Kevin De Bruyne (MF)

There is something about De Bruyne’s game that borders on ethereal. If it’s not the direct pass that leads to the goal, he often gets the “hockey assist” in making the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the goal.

Whether it is his vision to make passes few see, let alone successfully make, or his sense of timing when to take over a match in terms of trying to score, the Belgium international rightfully created a split in PFA voting last year and would have been a worthy winner had he not finished runner-up to another worthy winner in Liverpool’s Salah.

De Bruyne had a solid World Cup campaign in leading Belgium to a third-place finish in Russia, and with an embarrassment of riches around him in Aguero, Sterling, Jesus and now Mahrez, De Bruyne’s biggest threat comes in the form of being able to pop up anywhere in the opposing half of the pitch to create a scoring chance for others or fashion one for himself.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, City are overwhelming favourites to become the first team to repeat as champions since Manchester United won the last of its three straight titles in 2009. The Citizens are 8/11 odds to win it all again, and there are ridiculous odds for top-four (1/20) and top-six finishes (1/500).

It is a little closer to even money Guardiola’s team will be atop the table on Christmas Day at 10/11, and for top-two finishes, City have 3/1 odds to finish 1-2 ahead of Liverpool and 9/2 with United.

Aguero is listed fifth in odds to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot at 8/1, with Jesus sixth at 14/1. Sane and Sterling are further long shots at 33/1. Player of the Year odds is where it gets interesting as De Bruyne is a slight favorite at 8/1, Sane fifth at 14/1 and David Silva seventh (16/1).

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 12 — Arsenal (6th) A
Aug. 19 — Huddersfield Town (16th) H
Aug. 25 — Wolverhampton (N/A) A
Sept. 1 — Newcastle United (10th) H
—————
April 20 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) H
April 27 — Burnley (7th) A
May 4 — Leicester City (10th) H
May 12 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) A

OUTLOOK

For a team that won the Premier League by 19 points, reached 100, set all sorts of single-season records (it’s easier to just link to the Wiki page rather than add 200 superfluous words and numbers) and also registered a double by also winning the Carabao Cup, there is still unfinished business for Guardiola and Manchester City.

Some of that was self-inflicted by the Spaniard, whose decision to start Gundogan in the first leg of City’s Champions League quarterfinal at Liverpool ran counter to everything he had been building on the blue side of Manchester to that very point, and he paid for it.

Dearly.

Guardiola will not be prone to overthinking this time around, but it will also not be as easy to repeat as champions either. There is always a bizarre variable that comes off a World Cup summer, and while City have more than enough depth to rotate players to address any matchup issue Guardiola may perceive, there will be a creeping unknown of sorts until they actually play the matches and get through them.

Additionally, the primary foil in the Premier League is no longer City’s hated rivals across town, but is indeed, Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool. Manchester City had five meaningful losses all of last season — the Champions League ones to Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Basel had nothing at stake — and three of them came to Liverpool.

Further, the one victory over the Reds can be talked away as a match turned on its head when Mane got his red card and a 1-0 game turned into a 5-0 laugher. Liverpool has spent… and spent… and spent to get its team up to a point where it can at least attempt to stand with Manchester City, and it will be upon the reigning champion to knock the Reds down once more.

The success of teams hitting on the counter at the World Cup will probably result in a renewed effort to do so among clubs who play Manchester City. It is nothing new for the Citizens to face, but it will be something to watch. Guardiola loves a game of cat-and-mouse like few other managers, and with his legacy on the line as he enters his third season at the Etihad, expect a cagey and focused Spaniard on the sideline as he hunts glory and beyond.

PREDICTED FINISH

1st place

PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS

July 18 — Fulham                                      July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City                               July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton                      July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton                           July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town                 August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion    August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford                                     August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United                    August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth                          August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace                          August 6 — Manchester City