Liverpool travel to the Etihad on Thursday for what was dubbed as a title decider even before the season began; University of Derby footballjournalism student Jim Quinlan asks, is this still the case?
At the dawn of a new year the Premier League table is far from what punters expected at the half way stage. Jürgen Klopp’s men lead the way on 54 points whilst Pep Guardiola’s side are the best of the rest, stuck in second on 47 points after running out of road in recent weeks.
The only aspect that is unordinary at this stage is that the Reds have managed to already amass a seven-point gap on their next opponents, something no one expected, let alone being unbeaten come match week 21.
There is a sense that Liverpool are running away with it, they don’t seem like letting up and City are under more pressure to win this clash off the back of a poor month in anyone’s standards. Although, there is no chance that the title race this season is already over.
As the old saying goes, ‘anything can happen in football’, and there is still 5 more months of football for anyone to turn the table on its head. At the same stage last season City had a 15-point gap between themselves and second, so have all the qualities to turn this around.
That, however, will be massively impacted by the result on Thursday night.
A Liverpool win would create a 10-point cushion between both sides, most likely pushing City down into third granted that Spurs taste victory against Cardiff on New Year’s Day meaning Liverpool would maintain a nine-point lead.
The gap created from a Liverpool victory would be almost impossible to close. It would also hand them a great opportunity to become the first ‘Invincibles’ side since Arsenal in 2003/04, whilst some solace for Pep Guardiola would be that he could push on in the Champions League instead.
If the result swings the other way, then the gap is shortened to just four points, whilst Spurs could be just six points off top spot too. It is simply a must-win fixtureif City want to recapture the title.
Fresh from their 5-1 routing of Arsenal at Anfield, Liverpool go in as favourites despite Man City ending their festive winless run away at Southampton at the weekend. Liverpool look the more likely to score, keep a clean sheet and ultimately win this fixture, but it would be foolish to rule a side of City’s calibre out of any result.
Furthermore, the prospect of facing Liverpool in current form does not make for pretty reading for City, especially when predicting line ups.
Liverpool have been watertight in defence thanks to Virgil van Dijk and Alisson, conceding eight all season to City’s 16. The home side will have to beat the best defence in the world currently if they would stand any chance of getting a result on Thursday.
Additionally, one flaw in the Manchester plan could be that of stopping Mohamed Salah who now has 16 goals to his name this season.
Liverpool have been at their attacking best this last month, and without a senior left back to start the matchGuardiola will be forced to wither deploy at left backAymeric Laporte, who struggled against Salah in the Champions League, or Oleksandr Zinchenko, who put in a nervy performance at the weekend against the saints. This will only instill confidence in Liverpool’s front four who have claimed the scalps of Manchester Utd and Arsenal as aforementioned.
City could also be without talisman Kevin de Bruyne, which is another sucker punch to their attacking verve. Klopp however has no casualties to his recent side and has proven before he has what it takes to win at the Etihad, even with sides weaker than his current group.
This fixture therefore still holds the key to who will eventually be crowned champions, rightfully earning the mantle of the most decisive fixture this campaign. This brings a sense of déjà vu of last season’s second meeting between these sides, only this time around with higher stakes.
Liverpool were the only side to wipe City away last term in that 4-3 scoreline last January, so the home side will be hoping for revenge in this fixture looking to inflict Liverpool’s first defeat, a polar opposite to last year’s meeting.