Thursday 23 January 2020

Crunch Anfield clash puts title on the line

If Liverpool win on Sunday, the psychological blow could prove fatal for City's League hopes

Pep Guardiola had praise and a barb for Sadio Mane
Pep Guardiola had praise and a barb for Sadio Mane

Down through the centuries there have been significant battles that changed the course of history.

Democracy was saved for the world at the Battle of Marathon when the Athenians repelled a mighty force of invaders.

A bloke from Trim, Arthur Wesley, aka the Duke of Wellington, put a halt to Napoleon's gallop at the Battle of Waterloo.

On Sunday, historians will be watching the plains of Anfield, where reigning champions Manchester City meet a questing Liverpool who are campaigning to end a 30-year wait for a Premier League title.

This is the big one.

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool haven’t lost a Premier League game at Anfield since April 2017
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool haven’t lost a Premier League game at Anfield since April 2017

The result of this clash between the two powerhouses in the league could determine the destination of the trophy at the end of the season.

It's worth recalling that last season Liverpool lost fewer matches than City, who lifted the prize thanks to a single-point difference.

It was a cruel denial of glory for Liverpool, who compensated gloriously by winning the Champions League and strengthening their claim to be one of the top teams in the world at present.

While there's a lot of league football to be played between now and season's end, it would be foolish to downplay the importance of the three points at stake on Sunday.

These two teams are top of the league and, given that they won't meet each other again until April, the points on offer this weekend carry a significance beyond measure and a weight that's impossible to quantify.

It's been an almost perfect league campaign for Liverpool so far. Ten wins and a draw in 11 games sees Jurgen Klopp's side sitting six points clear of Manchester City.

You don't have to be a professor of quantum physics to know the explosive game-changing energy that's packed into Sunday's three points.

Liverpool win and they open up a nine-point lead on Pep Guardiola's side.

While a packed schedule might yet lead to a possible blip later in the season for Liverpool, City could struggle to make up ground.

Defeat for City on Sunday could shatter their morale and leave them vulnerable to being overtaken by Leicester City and Chelsea, who both trail City by just two points.

This is a match you won't want to miss. The champions of England versus the champions of Europe with more than bragging rights at stake.

A win for City would narrow the gap and would surely leave Guardiola's squad bullishly anxious to reassert their dominance.

It's hard to imagine how a defeat by City, Liverpool's first defeat since January, would affect Klopp's players.

It's April 2017 since Liverpool lost at home so, at the very least, a defeat would see the Anfield sports psychologists putting in an extra shift to ensure players' spirits don't drop.

Big games like this bring big pressure and the temperature is already being turned up on this one.

On Saturday, while praising Liverpool's Sadio Mane as "a special talent," Pep Guardiola appeared to be damning with feint praise by adding casually, "Sometimes he's diving."

Whether it was intended as a signal to referees or a discreet turn of the psychological screw, it promoted an unambiguous response from the Senegalese striker who defiantly declared, "If it could be a penalty for sure I will 'dive' again."

Liverpool boss Klopp dismissed Guardiola's accusation, claiming the City boss was "fixated" on his team.

While both managers appear to shrug off this lightweight sniping as mere banter, the fact that it took a last-gasp goal from Mane to ensure a win for Liverpool against Aston Villa might suggest that Klopp's team are showing hints of vulnerability that City might exploit.

However, every Liverpool supporter will know that arch rivals Manchester United made a career out of scoring important goals at the death. So they expect their team will hold its nerve for Sunday's crucial set-piece.

City have plenty of worries of their own with a number of players, including David Silva, Rodri and Leroy Sane, unavailable.

This is a game they won't want to go into without first-choice 'keeper Ederson, who went off injured in Wednesday's Champions League match against Atalanta.

Both Liverpool and Manchester City have star-studded teams. Both defences have been robust but are not perfect.

With an abundance of attacking talent available to both sides and diligent midfield players on patrol, this match is likely to come down to the tactical nous and ability to make whip-smart decisions in the cauldron that will be Anfield on Sunday.

We're sure of pyrotechnics at the Pep and Jurgen Show.

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