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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Liverpool host Manchester City four months on from the game that changed the season

Klopp's side take on the league leaders looking to avenge the 5-0 defeat in September.

Jurgen Klopp, left, and Liverpool host Pep Guardiola, right, and Manchester City in the Premier League on Sunday. Dave Thompson / AP Photo
Jurgen Klopp, left, and Liverpool host Pep Guardiola, right, and Manchester City in the Premier League on Sunday. Dave Thompson / AP Photo

Viewed with hindsight, everything can appear inevitable. Manchester City’s excellence this season is an example, but rewind a few months to a time when outsiders doubted whether Pep Guardiola’s philosophy could prevail in England and many wondered if he had the players to implement it.

Before a time when Raheem Sterling, Fabian Delph and Nicolas Otamendi were held up as examples of his catalytic coaching and to a series of turning points in what threatened to be an uncertain start to the season.

There was Sterling’s late equaliser for City’s 10 men against Everton. There was Sterling’s even later winner, still the latest goal of the Premier League campaign, five days later against Bournemouth.

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Then there was Sadio Mane’s first-half dismissal when Liverpool visited the Etihad Stadium. “The red card changed the game and maybe for Man City the season,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said.

It was no exaggeration. City were a goal ahead when Mane caught Ederson in the face with a raised boot, but Mohamed Salah was tormenting Otamendi.

Liverpool, whose intensity had been too much for City in the previous two seasons and who had eviscerated Arsenal two weeks earlier, were going toe to toe with Guardiola’s side.

Minus Mane and with Salah soon and strangely substituted, Liverpool lost 5-0. City began routing opponents. They beat Watford 6-0, then Crystal Palace 5-0.

These teams reconvene with Liverpool 18 points behind City. It is four weeks since Klopp admitted everyone else is playing for second place. With a top-four finish an imperative for Liverpool, Sunday's rematch at Anfield feels bigger for the hosts.

Guardiola invariably gives the impression he is not concerned by statistical distinctions but this is the biggest obstacle in City’s path to becoming the division’s second "Invincibles".

It is partly because of their record at Anfield: four straight defeats, no wins in 14. It is also because, as England’s two most thrilling attacking sides meet, something has to give.

They score in copious quantities but Liverpool have conceded the fewest goals at home, City the fewest away.

Likewise, Liverpool are unbeaten in 17 games, City in 30 in the Premier League. They have won 10 of 11 on the road. Liverpool are unbeaten in 18 games in all competitions at Anfield.

Subplots abound. There is the issue of Liverpool’s defence, capable of keeping clean sheets against the lesser lights but breached three times by Arsenal, four by Tottenham and five by City.

Virgil van Dijk’s £75 million (Dh378.2m) capture is designed to lend solidity. The world’s costliest defender should make his league debut, marking Sergio Aguero, scorer of 188 City goals but none at Anfield. There is the fit-again Salah, ready to resume his place in Liverpool’s forward line.

There is the missing man, the sold Philippe Coutinho, a regular scourge of City, and the one who is returning, with Sterling back at Anfield, guaranteed an acrimonious reception and no doubt with the visiting fans repeating their mantra, that the winger is “top of the league”.

There is the compelling contest between Klopp and Guardiola, renewing a rivalry that began in the Bundesliga. No manager has beaten the Catalan more than the German, who has four triumphs to his name. He has prospered by being positive. “Jurgen is a guy who always tries to play on the front foot, with no fear,” Guardiola said.

And there is the question that has remained unanswered, four months after their last meeting: can Liverpool find a way of inflicting a first defeat this season on City’s strongest side?

This time it cannot derail a title charge. But when others have been outclassed by City, Liverpool have been left wondering if they would have won with 11 men.