By Padraig O’Callaghan – @AGameOfTwoHalfz
Liverpool travel to the Etihad stadium to face Manchester City in what could be a season defining match.
The Reds already hold a seven-point advantage over their title rivals and a victory for the Reds’ would probably turn Pep Guardiola’s head in the direction of European silverware.
Liverpool had a perfect month of December, winning every single game they played, scoring 23 and only conceding three. The fixture congestion continues until the middle of January before matches become a weekly event until the Champion League resumes.
Manchester City had a nightmare run of form during the festive period, losing three matches in four games. In the games they did win, their defence looked fragile, this is backed up by the fact they have failed to keep a clean sheet during the month of December (nine games in all comps.)
Liverpool ended 2018 in ridiculous fashion, beating Arsenal by a score line of 5-1, a result which sent out a stern statement to Manchester City about their intentions this season.
Arsenal took an early lead in the 10th minute, Liverpool and the Kop regrouped before we dominated the next 80, scoring five without response, the stuff you regularly see with championship winning sides.
The defence was quite shaky in the opening 15 minutes, allowing quite a few chances for Arsenal, but adapted to the visitor’s formation and didn’t give them a sniff for the rest of the game.
Pierre Emerick Aubamayang, the league top scorer was only allowed 13 touches of the ball, six of which were from kick-off. Confidence will be riding high ahead of their sternest test of the season.
Manchester City returned to winning ways on the south coast, winning 3-1 against Southampton. Southampton caused Man City a few problems in the first half, even with the return of Fernandinho. Two goals in first half stoppage time put the Citizens out of sight after Southampton cancelled out an early David Silva goal.
Before that match, City lost three in four, losing against Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Leicester City. Pep Guardiola’s defence were delicate, and their players look tired. Mistake crept into their game and attacking players were making bad decisions which affected their efficiency inf front of goal.
Pair that with two wonder strikes from the opposition and the result was only ever going to end in favour of one team, luckily for Liverpool it was against Man City.
Pep Guardiola goes into the game knowing only a win will do, to get this win he will have to play a very risky attacking formation, a formation which he knows Liverpool can capitalize on, as they did three times in 2018.
Ederson will remain in goal, John Stones and Aymeric Laporte are the only two players guaranteed to start in defence, Kyle Walker supposedly had a fall out with Pep after his recent performances while Fabian Delph is suspended.
Laporte could start at left back with Vincent Kompany starting alongside Stones, or Oleksandr Zinchenko could be a like-for-like replacement.
Fernandinho Is likely to keep his place in midfield even after returning from injury. One of Bernardo Silva or Kevin De Bruyne will partner David Silva to compete Man City’s’ midfield after the Belgian missed their last game due to slight injury. Raheem Sterling could be joined up front by Sergio Aguero and Riyad Mahrez.
This match may be the first time Jurgen Klopp will send out his team not to lose rather then setting out to win. His tactics will probably be a bit more pragmatic then usual, a midfield three of more defensive minded players will probably start the match. Allowing Xherdan Shaqiri to make an impact off the bench.
The defence pretty much picks itself barring any injuries, the same back five that started against Arsenal should start in Thursday evening. A defence that has been largely comfortable this season and one that has conceded no more than one goal in the league this season. I expect them to continue this feat as long as Dejan keeps the screws tightened in his head.
A pragmatic midfield trio of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Fabinho might be a tad bit negative for some supporters but it allows Liverpool to get more control in the middle of the park, an area in which Man City excel and can punish us.
The usual front three will look to do the business and with Man City’s defensive record as of late I expect us to score at least twice.
Midfield battles – This battle will be an important one, whoever comes out on top, giving the quality of both respective midfields will probably be leaving with three points.
Jurgen Klopp’s work horse midfield has gotten the better of Pep’s technical midfield three times in 2018, suffocating both Silva and De Bruyne of time and space while taking advantage if the lack of defensive work from the duo.
On Thursday Pep will probably send his team out to be very, very attacking and its how Liverpool deal with this attack his important in the outcome of the game. Being that attacking gives Liverpool many opportunities for a counter attack, so it depends on how many balls Liverpool win back in midfield to start these attacks.
We won’t get anything if we sit back as they have the players to hurt us, so our midfield will need to take turns to break from midfield to create havoc as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did on three occasions last season. If our midfield does this while keeping a solid shape, the likelihood is that we won’t lose, which should be the main aim going into this game.
Danger man: Sergio Aguero
On his day Sergio Aguero is one of the best players in the world, since his arrival to Man City eight years ago he has gone on to be the club’s top scorer of all time, netting 212 times in 313 appearances.
Aguero usually find the net at the Etihad when Liverpool are in town, scoring against the reds 6 times. This season his performance has been sub-par compared to past seasons despite the Argentine scoring 13 goals in all competitions.
Liverpool’s defence has been on another level this season and has dealt with top opposition strikers of all shapes and sizes this season.
If van Dijk and Lovren were to continue their fine form this season the game at the Etihad should be plain sailing for our defence, but when you have De Bruyne and Silva supplying balls into the box, a striker of his quality will score against you if the final ball is right.
Last five results
09/09/2017 – Premier League Manchester City 5-0 Liverpool
14/01/2018 – Premier League Liverpool 4-3 Manchester City
04/04/2018 – Champions League Liverpool 3-0 Manchester City
10/04/2018 – Champions League Manchester City 1-2 Liverpool
07/10/2018 – Premier League Liverpool 0-0 Manchester City
Six months ago, if you offered me the chance to be within four points of Man City a week before the game, I would have snatched your hand off. To be seven points clear is beyond our wildest dreams, even if we do lose, we are still four points clear. Will we lose? I don’t think so but having breathing space is always a nice thing to have.
The game at the Etihad of course will be nail biting, having the chance to put our closest rival all but out of sight in the league is absolutely terrifying from a fan point of view, the mood in the club couldn’t be any calmer, shown by the fact that Jurgen Klopp was out partying into the early hours of New Year’s Eve.
All the pressure is on Man City and Pep Guardiola doesn’t handle pressure well, he was sent to the stands in the second leg between the clubs in the second leg on the champions league after his game plan wasn’t working.
The game will be a cagey affair, with tensions on the blue side of the pitch very high, they have never been under pressure like this before, so mistakes will be evident as they have done over recent weeks. I think Liverpool will edge it, giving them a 10-point advantage over the current champions.
Our attack has hit form just at the right time, our front three have scored 12 goals over the month of December, with Shaqiri adding a further four. So, in theory they should be finding the back of the net given poor defensive performances from Man City. I’m going for a Liverpool win, though a 0-0 draw wouldn’t be bad either.
Final score: Man City 1 (Aguero) – 2 Liverpool (Mane, Salah)