‘Cautious optimism’ were the words that best described Liverpool fans as they approached the 2013-14 season. In Brendon Rodgers, they had a manager slowly coming into his own. Luis Suarez was the team’s superstar but had come pretty close to an exit in the preseason. Long-time goalkeeper Pepe Reina had been shipped out as Rodgers put his faith in the Belgian Simon Mignolet.
What happened next belied all expectations. Rodgers constructed an offensive juggernaut with a front line of Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling. The team scored a mind-boggling 101 goals. Surely that would be enough to win the league?
Well it should have been, except Manchester City scored 102 and in a ruthless act of one-upmanship, took the title on the final day.
While neither team has managed to win the title since, that season was the perfect example of what their DNA is. Over the past four-and-a-half seasons, they have, without question, been the two most entertaining teams in the league. And as Manchester United continue to be haunted by the ghost of Sir Alex’s retirement, Chelsea keep faith in “pragmatic” managers and Tottenham stick to being the Harry Kane show, it could well continue to be that way for a while.
Both Liverpool and City are attacking teams for whom defence is an afterthought. A competent keeper is nice, but not strictly necessary. At any point of the game, there is an even chance that their centre backs are closer to the opponent’s goal than their own. And calling their fullbacks part of the defence always seems like a stretch.
Of course, few people really come to watch that part of the team anyway. For it is in the offence where the beauty lies. Sadio Mane is a terrifying match-up for any fullback while Roberto Firmino more than makes up for his lack of pace with tricky feet and poacher instincts. Further to the right, Mohamed Salah has followed Kevin De Bruyne’s footsteps in showing Chelsea that their player assessment isn’t the best it can be.
Over at City, matters are best explained by the fact that Sergio Aguero is increasingly the number two option at the striker position. Yes, the man who scored the most important goal in the club’s history is being kept out of the big matches by a Brazilian kid playing his first season in Europe. That’s how bizarre things are. Leroy Sane and Sterling have been revelations into how much good coaching can help players, and David Silva and De Bruyne are putting out masterclasses in passing every time they get on the pitch.
The most obvious effect of the January transfer window has been felt by Liverpool. They will no doubt miss Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian playmaker could pull defences out of position with the threat of his long-distance pile-driver while also retaining the silky capability to slip the ball right into a runner’s path. He also had a special liking for City, scoring five goals in seven games against them. His absence makes Fernandinho’s job much easier and could allow City to take control of the midfield. On the flipside, Virgil van Dijk is a welcome addition to a defence which has never quite inspired confidence.
City remain engrossed in Alexis Sanchez's potential transfer saga, and while the Chilean might seem like overkill to some, it is worth remembering that Gabriel Jesus is yet to play an extended run of games and any long-term City fan will tell you that Aguero is far from being the most durable player in the game.
Liverpool has the tools to trouble City
The blueprint for competing with City thus far in the season has been to defend with your lives and hit them on the counter with tricky, speedy wingers. In the match against Crystal Palace, Wilfried Zaha gave Kyle Walker all sorts of trouble before turning his attention to Fabian Delph on the left side. If Roy Hodgson had let Zaha run at Delph from the start, Palace could well have walked away with more than a point.
Delph continues to remain City’s weakest link as they await the return of Benjamin Mendy. Liverpool will give him his toughest challenge yet as Salah’s speed and trickery means he is guaranteed to get past the central-midfielder-turned-left-back at least a couple of times in the match. What he manages to do with those chances could very well decide the outcome of this game.
Liverpool are not going to sit back and let City come at them. On paper, playing expansive football against City is a disaster as it opens up space for their master passers to exploit. However, perhaps more than anyone else City has met this season, Liverpool has the tools to trouble City. They have hardworking midfielders who can stick to Silva and De Bruyne while also being able to thread the eye-of-the-needle pass in the blink of an eye. While it is anybody’s guess if Liverpool will actually score, they will surely take City out of their comfort zone.
City will most probably still win this one. That gap in talent in some positions (Aguero vs Firmino, Ederson vs Mignolet) is just too much to ignore. However with Salah and Mane, Liverpool are sure to throw in a couple of scares at the league leaders. Clean sheets seem a remote possibility and if Jurgen Klopp can stop Mane from trying to kill Ederson this time, this could be the most entertaining league game of the season.
Updated Date: Jan 14, 2018 10:17:33 IST