LONDON: Matches identified as ‘title deciders’ usually take place a few weeks before the end of the season. The winners build their momentum towards the league championship prize and the losers drop points, self-belief and hope.
This is what makes Manchester City’s clash with Liverpool so particular. A full 17 matches (equating to a potential 51 points) will remain after the champions hosts the challengers. But if Liverpool win away to their rivals, they will establish a lead of 10 points which would be potentially unassailable.
Not only are leaders Liverpool the team with unbeaten momentum after nine successive league wins and 18 goals in their last five games but City revealed unexpected fragility in defeats by Leicester and Crystal Palace before beating Southampton on Sunday.
Also Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp is the one manager in world football who holds a statistically demonstrable edge over City’s otherwise incomparable Pep Guardiola.
Guardiola’s teams have always finished above Klopp’s in the Bundesliga (FC Bayern against Borussia Dortmund) and the English Premier League but the German wins most of the individual duels. City boss Guardiola has won 26 trophies in nine years yet, in the 15 direct clashes, Klopp has won eight with Guardiola five and two draws.
Klopp’s success against Guardiola is even greater in England, where the City manager has only overcome his old foe once, a 5:0 home win in September 2017.
Liverpool’s single-match dominance in seven games over the past two and a half years is simple: Liverpool have been more clinical in front of goal even though City have generally dominated possession.
City have scored 10 goals from 83 shots since the start of the 2016-17 season while Liverpool have scored 11 from 62 shots. City have wasted good chances. One of the most glaring was committed by Leroy Sane when Liverpool led 1:0 in last season’s Champions League quarter-final first leg at Anfield. A second was Riyad Mahrez’s penalty miss in the 0-0 league draw in October.
Guardiola is always diplomatic about opponents but he may have given away too much in his comments since the weekend.
Looking ahead to tonight, he said: “Given the position of Liverpool, [if] we drop points, it’s over, it’s finished – it would be almost impossible. Of course, I think they’re going to drop points but not too many.
“If we want to be there as far as possible until the end, we have to win games. Unfortunately we lost to Crystal Palace and Leicester and we have a rival who, at the moment, is the best team in Europe or in the top four in the world.
“Liverpool know what they have to do and we know what we have to do. I know the distance is big, especially because they are so solid and consistent. But it’s a game at home and hopefully the extra help will come from our people at the Etihad.”
Guardiola is likely to recall Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan who were missing last weekend and also start with Sane who played only as a late substitute.
Liverpool will have Sadio Mane available despite an incident in the 5:1 win over Arsenal when he placed his hands on the throat of the Stephan Lichtsteiner. The incident was seen by Michael Oliver, the referee, who awarded a free kick so the FA confirmed no further action was possible. Liverpool’s only injury doubt is veteran midfielder James Milner.
Xherdan Shaqiri has insisted the leaders will not compromise on their attacking principles. He said: “We go there to make a good performance. That’s the only goal that we have. Of course they’re going to come after us and try to win, to grab three points but we’re also confident about trying to win the game.”