By Cash Boyle – @cashboyle
As pre-season draws to a close, there’s much to savour ahead of Sunday’s FA Community Shield. The country’s best two face off for only the second time at Wembley, where ‘real’ football returns with a contest of the highest quality.
While the credentials of the Community Shield are routinely questioned, those of a Liverpool or Manchester City persuasion view the match as a blueprint for the season ahead.
The widely-held view is that these two teams will battle for the Premier League trophy once again, albeit at a slightly less relentless pace. A repeat of 98 and 97 points respectively feels nigh-on impossible, but the gap between the top two and the rest should persist.
The relative quietness of each club in the transfer window is reflective of the previous season’s success, with each operating with typical shrewdness. Both clubs favour astute additions over major overhaul, so Sunday should see each team play with their usual chemistry.
Assessing pre-season only, one would be forgiven for assuming a sizeable gap between the two teams. City won all but one game, while Liverpool only won three out of seven.
Jürgen Klopp often emphasises the limited meaning of pre-season, with its relevance slim beyond the fitness acquired. That partly assuaged fans who were concerned by the Reds’ poor US tour showing, where they lost to both Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla, whilst only managing a draw with Sporting Lisbon.
This was compounded by Liverpool’s worst pre-season performance, a 3-0 loss to Napoli in Edinburgh. The programme ended positively with a 3-1 victory over Lyon, which coincided with the return of several key players.
By contrast, City comfortably beat West Ham, Kitchee and Yokohama FM. Their only blip was a penalty shoot-out loss to Wolves, who are fast becoming something of a bogey team for Pep Guardiola and his men. Key signing Rodri earned rave reviews for his tour displays, cementing his status as Fernandinho’s heir. The only negative surrounded the early performances of the returning Angeliño, where his struggles generated headlines.
However, a quick glance highlights the disparity in the quality of opposition. Liverpool faced sterner opponents throughout. Despite this, Liverpool did look uncharacteristically porous at the back. That can be partly explained by the ever-changing defensive partnerships, whereas Aymeric Laporte and John Stones was the City partnership in all but one pre-season game.
Liverpool and City have been equally affected by international commitments, with Sadio Mané and Riyad Mahrez still missing for their respective sides after their Egypt exertions.
Similarly, Copa America winners Roberto Firmino, Alisson Becker, Gabriel Jesus, Fernandinho and Ederson have only just returned to training in the past week. That City triumvirate returned alongside bronze medal winners Sergio Aguero and Nicolas Otamendi.
Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah and Naby Keïta were subject to the same return date, alongside a Xherdan Shaqiri fully recovered from injury. It is unclear who will feature on Sunday.
The temptation will surely be to involve those who are fit enough to be so, in order to give each manager a more accurate reflection of his team’s standing with the Premier League less than a week away.
For Liverpool the back five almost picks itself. Simon Mignolet will probably get the nod as cup ‘keeper. The only doubt at the back is who partners Ballon d’Or contender Virgil van Dijk. Despite the likelihood of a long-term Joe Gomez/van Dijk partnership, Joel Matip has done nothing to lose his place.
From then onwards the selections become less obvious. Fabinho and Jordan Henderson look certain to start in midfield, with the final spot occupied by either James Milner or Gini Wijnaldum. Most fans would be content with either player, given the strength of their contributions in Liverpool red.
Sunday should come too soon for Naby Keïta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the latter of whom continues to make great strides. Such is Liverpool’s depth that there is no pressure to force Chamberlain’s return, but no doubt he will play a key role this season.
Despite their relative lack of minutes, most expect Firmino and Salah to start the game, with Divock Origi on the other side. Assuming a 45 minute cameo for all but Origi, the second half should see the Belgian deployed through the middle, flanked by a possible pairing of Shaqiri and Harry Wilson.
Wilson would be a surprise option given the club’s apparent openness to selling him, but he certainly did his cause no harm after notching a wonder strike vs Lyon. The dearth of traditional wingers at the club leaves the door slightly ajar for the Welshman. Given that Klopp can use five substitutes, expect a nostalgic appearance by Adam Lallana in the No.6 position.
City also have a degree of defensive predictability, unless the rumoured injury to Laporte does prevent his involvement on Sunday.
Second-choice goalkeeper Claudio Bravo will likely start, with Kyle Walker and Aleks Zinchenko playing in the full-back positions. John Stones will be partnered either by either Nicolas Otamendi, forced by circumstance to play a full 90 minutes earlier than desired, or youngster Eric Garcia.
Rodri is likely to be part of a midfield three with David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, who will aim to have an injury-free season after his struggles last year. Phil Foden and Ilkay Gündoğan represent additional options of similar quality.
City’s pre-season attack has also been determined by international football, with Raheem Sterling largely deployed through the middle. Should Sunday come too early for Aguero and Jesus, that formation may continue. Guardiola will almost certainly use both natural strikers during the game, but it’s unlikely to be from the start.
The expectation is that City will start by playing Sterling through the middle, with sought-after Leroy Sané and Bernardo Silva operating alongside him. Whatever the view of Sterling as a natural striker, that triumvirate is full of attacking intent.
New signings are often signalled as a potential difference-maker in the Community Shield. This year doesn’t follow that pattern. Of the four combined signings made, only Rodri could truly be considered ‘game changing’. The Spaniard has slotted in seamlessly, but arguably mirrors Fernandinho’s skillset.
This contest will be determined by the old guard, by the players who faced off twice last season in games which showed respect for the opponent. In the Anfield encounter, City clearly altered their style to stifle Liverpool, acknowledging the stadium’s power to which they had previously fallen victim. City ground out a 0-0, blighted by a Mahrez penalty miss.
The reverse fixture saw an 11mm margin prevent Mané scoring the first goal. Liverpool then went on to lose their only Premier League match of that season, ceding defeat to one of the best teams the league has ever seen.
On both occasions the sides were equally matched. With no substantial change in personnel, Sunday should see something of a repeat. A tight contest would psychologically benefit Liverpool more than City. At the moment it is hoped that the Reds can match City one again this season. Should they do so in the season opener, that hope would morph into belief.
Prediction: Liverpool 2-1 Manchester City