Manchester City aiming to conquer their final frontier and beat Liverpool at Anfield
Manager Guardiola must decide whether to go for broke in Sunday's Premier League match or, like last season, adopt a more cautious approach on Merseyside
Last weekend, Pep Guardiola was considering Liverpool’s formidable home record. “How many centuries have they not lost at Anfield?” he asked.
None, to be precise, but it is two-and-a-half years since Jurgen Klopp’s team were beaten on their own turf in the Premier League.
If Manchester City’s task on Sunday is to make history, it is also to fly in the face it. City teams have visited Liverpool 18 times without tasting victory since Nicolas Anelka condemned his old club to defeat in 2003. For the modern City, Anfield represents the final frontier.
And perhaps their final chance. Retrieving a nine-point deficit if they lose, even with 78 to play for, will not be easy.
This, along with April’s rematch at the Etihad Stadium, has the potential to prove the game that wins Liverpool their first league title in three decades.
They have the second best start to a top-flight season ever in England and do not face potential top-six finishers again until Leicester on Boxing Day while City have Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal in the same time. The gap at the top would have the potential to grow further.
Increasingly, it seems City cannot rely on anyone else to halt the leaders. They will have to do it themselves. Klopp’s relentless side have only suffered defeat once in 50 league games: to City in January. Factor in a stalemate at Anfield and City deprived Liverpool of five points last season. The other 18 teams only cost them 12.
The meeting of English and European champions feels part of a bigger battle for supremacy. Between them, they are the holders of six trophies. December’s World Club Cup could make it seven. Arguably the planet’s two best teams are based around 30 miles apart in England’s otherwise unglamorous north-west.
For once, Guardiola may be the underdog. Liverpool have had 24 hours’ more rest and were able to spare Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Andrew Robertson the majority of Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Genk.
They will be without Joel Matip but if illness rules Jordan Henderson out, the in-form Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looks a more attacking and appealing alternative.
They are closer to full strength, buoyed by 12 straight league wins at Anfield and taking heart from their capacity to mount comebacks.
“A couple of years ago we were struggling to win games like we win them now,” said Gini Wijnaldum. “We just create that thing that we know we always can turn things around.”
The counter-argument is that going behind – and Liverpool have trailed for 176 minutes in their last three league games, while eventually securing seven points, is less than ideal and a shortage of clean sheets, with none at home this season, could offer City encouragement.
But City could look patched up. Aymeric Laporte, who helped keep Liverpool’s forwards quiet in last season’s Merseyside stalemate, is injured. So is Leroy Sane, who delivered the January winner.
In contrast, none of Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez have scored against Liverpool at Anfield.
The presumption is that neither Rodri nor David Silva will be fit to figure in midfield, with the younger Spaniard’s absence meaning City will lack a genuinely defensive presence in front of the back four.
Perhaps Kevin de Bruyne or Bernardo Silva will be pressed into a deeper role alongside Ilkay Gundogan, especially if Guardiola looks to borrow from last season’s Anfield blueprint. The Portuguese was terrific then.
But they have to emulate enemies. If Liverpool navigated a spell without a high-class Brazilian goalkeeper, City may have the same task. Alisson’s two-month absence did not cost Klopp a point.
Now Guardiola may be without Ederson, who has a muscle problem. Claudio Bravo’s red card in the draw with Atalanta raised further questions about his decision-making.
There will be a focus, too, on the manager’s choices. Guardiola can testify to the power of Anfield. His side were swept aside in bursts of three goals in nine and 19 minutes respectively in 2017-18.
It explained a more cautious approach last season and the point he procured in the process proved decisive in the final standings. Yet if he decides the context makes this a must-win game and adopts a bolder attitude, it becomes an all-or-nothing affair, a shootout for glory.
Updated: November 8, 2019 11:04 AM