2018-19 EPL Match Day 21 Preview — Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)

Last season’s Manchester City side are considered one of the best all-time in English football history. Yet if the defending champions cannot at least draw current table-toppers Liverpool at the Etihad on Thursday, there is the very real chance they could be second to the Reds in history’s annals come May.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The first 100-point side in Premier League history, Manchester City (15-2-3) set a host of league records as they won the title by 19 points over eternal rivals Manchester United. Liverpool were a respectable fourth but gained plaudits by eliminating City over two legs in the Champions League quarterfinals en route to a runners-up finish to Real Madrid.

Liverpool (17-3-0) addressed their shortcomings in the offseason, most notably between the sticks with the acquisition of AS Roma keeper Alisson, and also added bargain-signing Xherdan Shaqiri as a change-of-pace offensive option. Midfield newcomers Fabinho and Naby Keita have teamed with towering centre back Virgil Van Dijk to transform Liverpool from a team who needed to outscore opponents to one who can suffocate them if needed.

“City is a game that we want to win,” Van Dijk told Liverpool’s official website. “It will be very hard, very tough, but for them as well. It’s going be a good match, but it is not a decisive game or something like that. We are not going to treat it different to any other.

“We will be prepared for a very tough game. Confidence is definitely here, but it can change over a couple of games. We won’t get carried away. We need to keep doing what we have been doing.”

Jurgen Klopp’s front-running side have conceded a league-low eight goals – eight fewer than joint-second City and Chelsea. They have recorded 12 clean sheets – already more than the 10 registered in their last serious title challenge under Brendan Rodgers in 2013-14.

Though people are quick to point out Liverpool are the only team leading at Christmas not to win the Premier League title the past nine seasons (2013-14 and 2008-09), Klopp insists his side are only focused on the singular task of winning this contest and not the reward of a seemingly insurmountable 10-point gap a victory would provide.

“We don’t think about the gap, not for a second. What we think about is 54 points – unbelievable, to be honest. That’s really strange and feels strange,” Klopp said, well aware his side are on pace to top 100 points like City did last term. “All we can do is keep going; recover first of all, that’s very important, and then prepare the next game.

“We all know, wow, Man City are a fantastic football team and an away game at City – who can go there and think ‘Probably we will win’? No team in the world, not even us. So we have to go there and try everything to get a result. That’s what we will try.”

Liverpool gained a measure of revenge against one of the three teams to hold them to a draw in the first go-round, swatting Arsenal aside 5-1 at Anfield on Saturday. After falling behind at home for the first time in league play – Liverpool have trailed at Anfield for all of seven minutes in all competitions – Roberto Firmino ended a goal drought that dated back to Dec. 5 with two goals three minutes apart. The second goal by the Brasil international was a slalom through a sea of weak Arsenal challenges before beating Bernd Leno.

Mohamed Salah set up a goal for Sadio Mane before converting a penalty in first-half stoppage time. The Egypt international then made a classy gesture early in the second half, stepping aside for another penalty attempt to let Firmino complete his hat trick. Having Firmino in form is an ominous sign for City considering the trio scored seven of Liverpool’s nine goals in the four matches between the teams last season.

Klopp will once again have to decide between using a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. Fabinho and Keita have a good partnership as defensive midfielders, but the manager does not lack for options as he can also turn to James Milner and Giorginio Wijnaldum in a mix of potential midfield combinations.

Manchester City gained a semblance of their swagger back last time out with a 3-1 victory at Southampton on Sunday. The match swung late in the first half when an own goal by Saints’ James Ward-Prowse off a shot by Rahem Sterling snapped a tie late in the first half, and Sergio Aguero added a tally right before the halftime whistle in stoppage time.

But what gave City confidence for this match was the return of central midfielder Fernandinho, who was sorely missed in their losses to Leicester City and Crystal Palace. The Brasil international served as a disruptive force in repelling Southampton’s attacks, which in turn allowed City’s attack to pour forward with their usual menace as David Silva scored his first goal since returning from injury and his ninth in all competitions.

Aguero has been a pest to Liverpool, especially at the Etihad – the Argentina international has scored in all six home games versus the Reds for City. One goal shy of 250 for his career, Aguero is willing to give Liverpool their due but also wants his side to be true to themselves in this crunch clash.

“Liverpool’s growth as a team can be tracked from a few years back,” the striker noted to City’s official website. “Their showing in the Champions League was a testament of that, and they are performing very well this Premier League season.

“But our focus should be on our own game. We are confident in our playing style and we believe it’s the most effective to lead us to victory. There’s no denying it is a huge game for both clubs. Direct clashes between leading teams have a major impact towards the end of the season.”

City manager Pep Guardiola has some injury concerns, most notably with attacking midfielder Kevin De Bruyne as he was held out of Sunday’s match as a precaution with a knock. Tactically, Guardiola must figure out who he wants at left back with Fabian Delph serving the second of his three-match ban for a red card on Boxing Day.

Oleksandr Zinchenko looked out of his depth there versus Southampton, getting dispossessed on the play that led directly to Southampton’s goal. Guardiola could move Danilo from right back to left while restoring Kyle Walker to his usual spot at right back.

If De Bruyne cannot play, Bernardo Silva would likely be on the right of Fernandinho in City’s 4-3-3 set-up.

The teams played to a cagey scoreless draw at Anfield, though City let Liverpool off the hook on 86 minutes when Riyad Mahrez blasted his penalty into the crowd on the Anfield End. For all the offensive fireworks these clubs provide, both teams rarely pushed their wide backs forward as a means of neutralizing the pace of the other.

In addition to the Champions League quarterfinal sweep, Liverpool have been a bogey team for City and are 7-3-1 in the last 11 overall meetings between the clubs. The Citizens’ lone win was a 5-0 thrashing of 10-man Liverpool at home last term, with Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane bagging braces after Mane was given a straight red card on 37 minutes for a reckless challenge on City keeper Ederson.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Manchester City are even-money favourites to deal Liverpool their first loss, while the Reds are 12/5 underdogs to claim all three points and create a seemingly insurmountable 10-point gap between the sides. There are 11/4 odds on the teams splitting the points to maintain the status quo.

The scoreless draw in the reverse fixture has put no fear in oddsmakers expecting goals, with 8/15 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 6/4 odds for another such result under the threshold. There are 1/2 odds for both teams to score in this contest compared to 6/4 odds on one of them being held off the scoreboard for the second time this season.

Aguero leads the line for first goal-scorer options at 10/3, trailed by Jesus (9/2). Salah rounds out the top three at 5/1, with understudy Daniel Sturridge 11/2 and City attacking winger Sterling at 6/1. Mahrez and Divock Origi are both 7/1 options, with Liverpool attacking players Firmino and Mane are both at 15/2. City winger Sane is 8/1, and Shaqiri is a step back at 9/1.

Despite the top-draw defences of both sides, Aguero does rate better than even money to score over the course of 90 minutes with 4/5 odds, while Jesus is an 11/10 pick and Salah checks in at 5/4. Sturridge (7/5) and Sterling (8/5) round out the top five, while Origi and Mahrez are paired together at 15/8. Mane and Firmino also rate as equals at 2/1, with Sane (11/5) and Shaqiri (5/2) a step back. David Silva and De Bruyne are both 11/4 picks to bag a goal.

PREDICTION

Here is the £64,000 question: Is the scoreless draw in October between the two sides the anomaly of their last five matches or the expected outcome?

The 5-0 City rout in last season’s corresponding fixture has to be taken with an asterisk since Liverpool played nearly two-thirds of the match with 10 men and the score was only 1-0 when Mane was sent off. The reverse fixture at Anfield in 2017-18 was marked by a nine-minute thunderclap of three Liverpool goals in the second half before City frantically scrambled to get two back and nearly steal a point.

What seems abundantly clear, however, is Klopp is in the head of the usually unflappable Guardiola. There is still the lament for Guardiola not staying true to his ethos in last season’s first-leg Champions League tie at Anfield in choosing Ilkay Gundogan over Sterling and paying the heaviest of prices with a goal deficit too large to overcome at the Etihad.

In October, Guardiola was content to defuse Liverpool. The result was a dour match in which there were 13 shots combined. To put that number in perspective, consider Klopp’s team alone have attempted 13 or more shots in 14 of their 20 league contests while City have unloaded 13 or more in all but three league contests.

This time, City cannot afford to sit back. Must it be an all-out attack from kickoff? No. But there is most certainly going to be an urgency to finding a goal first. To fall behind 0-1 in this contest early could very well be game over, title race over because Liverpool can carve open any team on the counter regardless of quality of opponent.

While the above projects Liverpool to the 4-2-3-1 set-up Klopp has veered to of late in league play, it would not be all that surprising to see him revert to the 4-3-3 for two reasons. One is another midfielder — most likely James Milner if 100 percent — to help check on David Silva and/or De Bruyne should the latter be available for selection or even a start.

The second, though, is that formation lets Salah be the person who tries to run City’s left back — most likely Danilo — into the ground as opposed to having the Egypt international lead the line with Shaqiri on the wing. It also lets Klopp keep some of his powder dry with Shaqiri being the first option off the bench in the event he has find an equaliser in the final 15-20 minutes.

Also in the spotlight to a degree for Liverpool will be right back Trent Alexander-Arnold, who watched the reverse fixture from the bench as Joe Gomez got the start. The 20-year-old has quietly evolved into a solid two-way player — though it also helps Liverpool often have overwhelming amounts of possession — after picking up three yellow cards in his first three matches.

This has the feel of a match where graft may be a higher premium than skill. While every player will display it in spades in this contest, it may also be one where Aguero finds yet another way to score against Liverpool — perhaps one that restores a proper Premier League title chase.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 2, Liverpool 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (11-5-4) vs. Fulham (3-5-12)
Chelsea (13-4-3) vs. Southampton (3-6-11)
Wolverhampton (8-5-7) vs. Crystal Palace (5-4-11)
Newcastle United (4-6-10) vs. Manchester United (10-5-5)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 20 Preview — Southampton (3-6-10) vs. Manchester City (14-2-3)

Whether it is delusion or defiance, Pep Guardiola is not showing any outward signs of panic ahead of Manchester City’s seemingly must-win matchup Sunday at Saint Mary’s versus Southampton ahead of their monumental clash versus table-toppers Liverpool.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The reigning title-holders have lost back-to-back league matches for just the second time since Guardiola’s arrival in 2016. Manchester City (14-2-3) exceeded their loss total for all of last term’s record-breaking 100 point season with their 2-1 Boxing Day defeat at Leicester City. The setback also dropped them into third place and seven points adrift of frontrunners Liverpool – whom they face Thursday at the Etihad in what could be a make-or-break contest in their bid to repeat as Premier League champions.

“The less important issue is Liverpool,” Guardiola insisted to ESPN. “We have to think about Southampton, recover mentally and recover what we are like a team. I don’t forget who we are.

“How good a team we are. How exceptional these lads I have in the locker room. But the reality is we lost three in four games and the last two. If you want to be real contenders you have to win again, if you don’t, it will not be possible.”

Guardiola also raised eyebrows with his proclamation City will not be buyers in the January transfer window. If that were to be the case, City would be passing up a chance to sign 21-year-old Ajax midfielder Luuk de Jong, a potential successor to Fernandinho and considered one of the top prospects in Europe.

For the wealth of options in attack Guardiola possesses, it has come to be that Fernandinho is the linchpin to City’s title hopes. The 33-year-old central midfielder serves as the link from defence who allows City’s attacking players to flow forward, operating as a one-man shield in front of the back four.

His availability for this match is again uncertain due to the thigh injury that has sidelined him the previous two contests, but his absence has magnified City’s shortcomings at the position as first centre back John Stones and more recently Ilkay Gundogan failed to serve as adequate replacements.

With Liverpool looming, it seems more likely Guardiola will hold out the Brasil international and again turn to Gundogan and rely on his creative midfielders David Silva – who just returned from injury – and Kevin De Bruyne – himself also not far removed from a knee injury – to help overwhelm and outscore relegation-threatened Southampton.

“‘What we have to do is try and change the dynamic to winning games. We are able to do that but I have to reflect myself, think about what the team needs and try to help them,” Guardiola told The Daily Mail. “‘That is what will concern me for the next few days. Good results are miracles for the mind and I have to help the players come back, change something and try to win again.”

Guardiola will be enforced to one change at left back since Fabian Delph will begin serving a three-match ban for his straight red card issued late in the loss to the Foxes. Oleksandr Zinchenko is expected to slot in as first-choice left back Benjamin Mendy continues to recover from a knee injury.

Southampton have seen some of those good results following the managerial change to Ralph Hasenhuttl as they have split his first four matches in charge after the sacking of Mark Hughes. Like Manchester City to a degree, the Saints were done in by a quality strike last time out as Felipe Anderson’s brace consigned them to a 2-1 defeat to West Ham on Thursday.

At some point, Hasenhuttl wants to convert Southampton into a high-pressing side that utilizes a 4-2-2-2 formation similar to what Watford employ under Javi Gracia, but the compressed holiday fixture list means the Saints will likely stick with their three-man back until at least the middle of January when they can get significant uninterrupted practice time.

In the interim, though, Hasenhuttl is concerned that an angry City side are coming to St Mary’s having pumped six past Southampton in the reverse fixture in November.

“They can be (more dangerous). It’s not normal for Manchester City to lose two times in a row,” Hasenhuttl said at his Friday news conference. “They also have a few injury problems but there is so much quality in this squad.

“Maybe they lost a bit of self confidence after being in the lead and losing two times. We expect the most difficult challenge that is possible. If we want anything out of the game then we need the perfect performance.”

Hasenhuttl will regain the services of central midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who sat out the loss to West Ham due to yellow card accumulation.

“Pierre is a very intelligent player, and he is very important for me. He reads the game very well and we need that,” Hasenhuttl noted.

The manager is also hoping Nathan Redmond can continue his resurgence, having scored in back-to-back contests after giving Southampton a short-lived lead Thursday and factoring in three of the club’s seven goals since Hasenhuttl took over. Teenager and winger Michael Obafemi is a question mark after picking up a knock in training, which would likely make Shane Long the first attacking option off the bench for a second straight match.

Raheem Sterling had two goals and two assists to power City’s rout in the reverse fixture, their fourth win on the bounce over Southampton. The Citizens are 8-1-1 in the last 10 league meetings between the teams, racking up 27 goals with only nine in reply by the Saints.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, City are 3/10 favourites to turn things around with a victory, while Southampton are 10/1 underdogs to send Guardiola to his first three-game losing streak in league play since taking charge of the Citizens. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 5/1.

Given the six City smashed past Southampton in November, it is no surprise there are 8/15 odds on the final goal total being over 2.5. There are 6/4 odds on the final score having two or fewer goals. Oddsmakers also feel a clean sheet is more likely than both teams scoring in both fixtures, with a “No” for both teams scoring at 4/5 and edging out “Yes” at 19/20.

All told, there are eight City players deemed more likely to score the first goal of the match than the Southampton top option of Danny Ings at 9/1. Sergio Aguero leads the way at 5/2, followed by Gabriel Jesus (10/3), and Sterling (9/2). After being held out of the starting XI against his former team, Riyad Mahrez is an 11/2 pick to make it 0-1, followed by Leroy Sane (6/1) and the trio of Brahim Diaz, Silva and De Bruyne — all at 8/1.

In terms of goals over the course of 90 minutes, both Aguero and Jesus are even money picks at 4/7 and 4/5, respectively. Sterling is just off that standard at 11/10, with Mahrez (7/5) and Sane (8/5) giving chase. Diaz, Silva and De Bruyne are all 11/5 picks, with Ings again the top Saints option at 5/2 along with City’s Bernard Silva.

Redmond is a 9/2 pick to score for a third straight match and a 16/1 longshot to open the scoring for a third straight Southampton contest.

PREDICTION

One of the details of City missing Fernandinho worth being scrutinised is how the Citizens have switched off immediately after taking the lead in their last two contests. It took six minutes for Crystal Palace to equalise last weekend, five for Leicester City to draw level with arguably their first scoring chance of the match.

Another point obscured with Manchester City’s staggering depth is that Guardiola’s preferred midfield trio — David Silva on the left, Fernandinho central and De Bruyne on the right — have yet to play one minute together in league play. It’s hard to feel any pity for City given their vast fortunes — more so if the allegations of skirting Financial Fair play are ever proven accurate — but it does also speak to the quality of a side that is still on pace for nearly 90 points.

Guardiola can pick his attackers with an eye on saving those who he wants to start for Liveerpool, with the expectations Jesus and Mahrez are in the starting XI up front flanked by Sane in a bid to jump-start the Germany international ahead of Thursday’s crunch encounter.

There are some things a new manager bounce cannot overcome, and a gulf in talent is one of them. Hasenhuttl has done well with what he has, quickly made some needed tweaks, and has Southampton playing better. The talk of being defence-first is not surprising from the new boss given how City razed the Saints to the ground last month, but one hopes it does not become the same sort of hang on for dear life mentality that was apparent under Hughes and ultimately contributed to his demise.

This is the match where City right themselves, but watch how they perform after scoring a goal — something that should happen multiple times. A good week of practice will have resulted in Guardiola’s side not sitting back and eager to recover the ball repeatedly against what should be an overmatched Southampton club.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Southampton 0, Manchester City 4.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 20 PREVIEWS:

Tottenham Hotspur (15-0-4) vs. Wolverhampton (7-5-7)
Liverpool (16-3-0) vs. Arsenal (11-5-3)
Watford (8-3-8) vs. Newcastle United (4-5-10)
Manchester United (9-5-5) vs. Bournemouth (8-2-9)