Early in the Premier League season, when the campaign’s roadmap is drafted for the months to come, Liverpool’s match with Manchester City at Anfield on New Year’s Eve was billed as one of the decisive games of the top-flight campaign.
Under Pep Guardiola, the men from the Etihad Stadium swept all before them in the initial weeks of the campaign and their closest challengers looked set to be Jurgen Klopp’s rampant Reds, who were obliterating defences with their perpetual motion on the ball in the final third.
That encounter on the final day of 2016 didn’t end up being the momentous occasion that was expected. Neither team played particularly well on the day, with the Reds edging a 1-0 win at Anfield. It was a precursor of what was to come, as both sides struggled in early 2017 and slumped down the pecking order.
With Chelsea streaking away at the summit of the table, Sunday’s showdown at the Etihad Stadium is not quite as important as many would have expected. But it’s still important, with both teams seeking to secure their spot in the Premier League’s top four.
City currently sit in third place, level on points with Tottenham in second spot and 10 points behind the runaway leaders. The Reds are a point back and a place back having played a game more, although they can usurp their Manchester rivals with three points on the road.
Crucially, both teams are on an upward curve as things stand too, with each slowly finding their feet after testing spells. And with the top prize out of reach for each, perhaps we’ll see the shackles off these two attacking outfits and a much more enjoyable game than the one that underwhelmed last year.
When and where to watch the game on US TV and streaming:
Date: Sunday, March 19, 2017
Time: 12:30 p.m. (ET), 9:30 a.m. (PT), 4:30 p.m. (GMT)
US TV: NBC (over-the-air network)
US streaming: NBC Sports App and fubo Premier (7-day free trial)
After their midweek elimination to AS Monaco in the UEFA Champions League, City are left to focus on the Premier League and the FA Cup in the remaining weeks of Guardiola’s debut term.
Overall, it’s been a campaign that has been a little disappointing. Granted, the team spent a lot of money in the summer and the acquisition of players like Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus has made plenty excited about the future at the Etihad Stadium. But there is still a long way for this team to go.
This is an opportunity to take another positive step, though. Although City did overcome Liverpool in last season’s League Cup final, overall they’ve struggled against Klopp’s side. In this fixture last season, the Reds ran riot in a 4-1 win at the Etihad Stadium.
The big issue for City in these matches has been their intensity. While David Silva, Yaya Toure and Kevin De Bruyne are all wonderful manipulators of the ball, Liverpool have trampled all over them in that area of the pitch in previous meetings. The City defence has been chasing shadows against the Reds’ fluid forwards too.
That’ll be a challenge for the home side, although there have been small signs as of late that players are marrying the physical and technical demands of Guardiola’s setup to greater effect. Sergio Aguero, who is working harder, pressing smarter and still scoring goals, epitomises that.
And that’s where City will feel they can win this game. In Aguero, they have a striker in form, while flanking him is the exhilarating pair of former Liverpool man Raheem Sterling, who will be keen to show what he can do, and Leroy Sane, who has been in fantastic form as late.
The problems Liverpool have endured under Klopp have been well documented. Deep-sitting, defensively determined opponents trouble the Reds, especially given the vibrant spark that was so prevalent in their play earlier in the campaign has faded away lately.
However, teams who open the game up, such as City, have been picked off by this Liverpool team. Stylistically, there are obviously traits in Klopp’s way of playing that align well with these matches, as the Reds are a dangerous proposition when the game is stretched. The mentality of the players is strong in these games too.
And while the win over Burnley at Anfield last time out may have been an attritional one, perhaps it can be a catalyst for improvement in the final 10 games of the campaign. A win at the Etihad Stadium may be another one.
The team’s away form has been a little sketchy as of late, though, with their only victory on the road in the last six matches the 1-0 at fourth-tier Plymouth Argyle in an FA Cup replay. Not showing their best form on the road is slowly becoming another significant hurdle for this team to overcome, especially given how they crumbled at Hull City and Leicester City.
Klopp has some fascinating decisions to make in terms of selection here too. Philippe Coutinho, a tormentor of Manchester City in the past, hasn’t been plugged in lately and was hooked before the hour-mark against Burnley. Roberto Firmino also missed the clash with the Clarets last week, while Jordan Henderson has been ruled out.
Yet it’s all about the collective for Klopp and teams who operate with a prolonged zeal have caused massive problems for City this season. That’ll be the message ringing in the ears of the players in red come kick off on Saturday—intensity.
Key Battle – David Silva vs. Emre Can
As aforementioned, the midfield battle in this one is going to be so important, with City’s diminutive schemers seeking to gain an advantage over the Reds’ enforcers. The duel between Silva and Emre Can encapsulates that.
Silva has been mesmeric in recent weeks. While the form of the front three has caught the eye, so often it’s the playmaker who is supplying the bullets. Silva is so adept at finding space, so difficult to take the ball off and so proficient in his forward passing.
Can will have his work cut out on the day. The German midfielder has come in for some stick in recent weeks after some stuttering performances, although answered some critics with a fine long-range strike to help Liverpool beat Burnley. It’s the defensive side of his game that’ll be under the microscope here, though.
If City are going to cope with the aggressive pressing from Liverpool in the middle of the park, Silva must take the ball in tight spaces and help his team play around those in red onrushing.