Game to watch – Liverpool v Manchester City
After 22 games of the Premier League season, it is safe to suggest any doubts regarding Manchester City’s credentials have been thoroughly disproved. Pep Guardiola’s team has swept aside almost any and every domestic opponent, with the exception of Everton in August and Crystal Palace in December. Their 15-point gap at the table’s summit shows no sign of abating.
But of their 20 league victories, an asterisk has long been placed against one. The 5-0 victory over Liverpool in September betrayed what was a remarkably close and enthralling game before Sadio Mane’s first-half sending-off for a clash with Ederson. For 20 minutes, Liverpool traded blows with the future champions, bruising but not flooring them.
City might well have gone on to win regardless of the Senegalese’s controversial red card, but it provided Liverpool and their fans with a virtue that none of City’s other fallen opponents have been granted this season. It gave them an excuse, a reason to discount and disregard what was a crushing defeat.
‘Blues facing sternest test yet?’ asked City’s official website on Thursday, and it is difficult to argue to the contrary. Liverpool are on the longest current unbeaten run of any Premier League side, having gone 17 games without defeat in all competitions. The 4-1 loss to Tottenham was painted as a season-derailer, yet it has reinvigorated them. They were ninth after their Wembley humbling; they are now fourth, and back above Tottenham.
The defence has also improved immeasurably. Liverpool conceded three goals in that first-half capitulation three months ago. In their subsequent 17-game unbeaten run, they have conceded just one first-half goal in total.
But this is the first step in the club’s latest journey. “Players will come and players will go, that is football,” said Jurgen Klopp last week. “We have never been in a better position in recent times, as a club, to react in the right way. We will use our size and strength to absorb moments like this and still move forward.”
Many have criticised not necessarily the sale itself, but the timing of Philippe Coutinho’s departure for Barcelona. It is no doubt a calculated risk, and will be pinpointed as the exact moment Liverpool’s grip on a top-four spot loosened if they fail to qualify for the Champions League come May.
But history suggests that Klopp is now in his element, and Liverpool can cope without Coutinho. The Reds have lost just two of the 25 Premier League games the Brazilian has not started since February 2016. Coupled with the fact that no manager has beaten Guardiola on more occasions than Klopp (4), the hosts have more than a chance on Sunday.
After all, only once in the Premier League era have Liverpool been beaten at home by City. A Nicolas Anelka-inspired May evening in 2003 is the only occasion in 22 matches since 1992 that City have emerged as victors at Anfield.