Thursday’s crucial game at the Etihad already has every neutral’s mouthwatering and every Liverpool and Manchester City fan feeling rather nervous.
Liverpool go to Manchester with a seven-point lead over the champions, having not lost a league game all season. The Reds’ staggering first half of the campaign has left everyone dreaming of what could be a monumental 2019.
City, however, go into the game on the back of a mixed run of form. Despite comfortably beating Southampton in their last match, they suffered back to back defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester in December, and they also lost at Stamford Bridge earlier in the month. This run of form presented Liverpool with a massive opportunity, which they seized upon by winning games comfortably and fans are starting to believe that number 19 could be on its way.
Going into Thursday’s game, the approaches both managers take will be vital to how the game will be played. One crucial factor Liverpool must realise is that all the pressure is on City. They are the champions who were predicted to steamroll the league, and yet, they find themselves seven points adrift and in third place, behind the Reds and Tottenham.
Liverpool’s approach in the game has to be a calm one, which they have shown all season they are capable of carrying out. The most vital part of the game is the opening 20 minutes. The longer the game remains a tight and congested affair, the more restless and attacking City will have to become.
Earlier in the season at Anfield, City handled the first 20 minutes superbly, where in recent times the game has slipped away from them. They frustrated Liverpool and a loud Anfield until they felt relaxed in the game.
So what approach will Liverpool take?
Jurgen Klopp is fully expected to resort back to his much-loved 4-3-3, despite using a 4-2-3-1 many times this season. However, the 4-2-3-1 is predominantly used when Xherdan Shaqiri is playing, as he can frequently assist the front three.
The big question Klopp has to answer is who he will pick in the centre of midfield? Does he resort back to his method from last season that had the edge of Pep Guardiola’s men in Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum? Does he go slightly more conservative and play Henderson and Fabinho alongside one another, which he has done in the past at tricky away fixtures?
I think the midfield Guardiola will be expecting will be Henderson, Fabinho and Wijnaldum. With James Milner and Naby Keita only returning from injuries recently.
Unless Klopp goes with an approach that is extremely bold and tries to match City’s very attacking midfield, I can’t see a scenario which sees Shaqiri start.
The next big decision that Klopp will need to make is at right back. Despite Trent Alexander Arnold playing superbly so far this season, I wonder if Klopp decides to go with Milner for this one. The older, and slightly more reliable figure against a formidable list of wingers.
The approach that Liverpool take at the Etihad will be crucial to how the game is played. So far this season Klopp’s team selections have been faultless and are a credit to such a good man manager. He has rotated the squad to keep everybody fresh for the remainder of the season but has also managed to give everybody enough game time resulting in a happy camp.
If Liverpool can do the business at the Etihad then fantastic, a 7 or 10 point gap is tremendous. However, what Liverpool’s fans need to keep in mind is that the worst possible outcome is being four points clear having played them twice, anybody would have taken that in August!