When the history of this season comes to be written the meeting of Liverpool and Manchester City on Sunday might not be seen as decisive in the title race, as these two sides’ encounters have been in the recent past, but with the situations they find themselves in the match looks absolutely fascinating. There is pressure on both sides this season, City wanting to knock Liverpool off their perch and the champions desperate to raise the trophy again, hopefully with fans there to see it this time, and perhaps this weekend we will see who is coping with it the best.
The acid test of a great side is the ability to go again, not just to win major titles but to keep hold of them. City have done it, winning the Premier League in 2017-18 and doing it again the following year despite Liverpool’s massive points tally. Now it’s the Reds’ turn to try. Jürgen Klopp has spoken about wanting to attack the title this year rather than defend it – such a brilliant way to approach a challenge. They’re not on the ropes, worried about slipping up, they’re on the front foot. I love that psychological language from Klopp, and you can see his team putting his words into action on the pitch.
Virgil van Dijk’s injury was a cruel blow to their title chances. I’ve looked back over the sides who have managed to defend the Premier League this century, and none has done it without a player of his importance. Another brilliant Dutch centre-back, Jaap Stam, missed four months of the season when Manchester United retained their title in 2000-01, and the less influential Wes Brown missed almost all of United’s title defence in 2008-09, but it is a pretty solid rule that teams who retain the title keep the spine of their side fit and firing. Liverpool face playing the vast majority of this season without the rock who has held their defence together, and given their full-backs such attacking freedom, for the last two years, and it is the kind of blow that no other side in recent history has managed to recover from.
This year was going to be a serious challenge for them anyway. In 2018-19 they won the Champions League and just missed out on the league title, then they went again and won the league. To do it again this year, even with a full-strength side, would be an incredible achievement. It is so difficult to motivate a group of players to sustain these levels, and even without Van Dijk Liverpool haven’t taken a step back: they still have the hunger.
Though Thiago Alcântara was their star signing this summer, so far Diogo Jota is having the big impact. For years people watched Liverpool’s front three and asked how they would cope if any of them got seriously injured. Now they have a player who is making a serious case for pushing one of them out of the team. Jota looked a quality player at Wolves but, unlike Sadio Mané at Southampton before his move to Anfield, he was not their star, and under Klopp he has gone up a level. History suggests that Liverpool should have no chance of winning the league this season, with their best defender replaced with youth-team graduates most people had never heard of, and with recruitment that on the face of it doesn’t look that glamorous, but nevertheless they are top and in form.
Meanwhile Manchester City are 10th, a slightly false position because they have a game in hand that could put them level on points with Spurs in third, but to me they have looked at times like a bored group of players. The individual quality is still there, and is carrying them through games, but I do feel it looks like a dressing room that could benefit from hearing a new voice. One of Barcelona’s presidential candidates has spoken openly about Pep Guardiola returning as manager, and although Guardiola has said he is happy at City, speculation about his future is inevitable given that his contract expires at the end of this season. As a manager he has never stayed as long at a club as he has at City, and he is such an intense personality you can see why. After finishing the 2019-20 season so far behind Liverpool, and being knocked out of the Champions League by Lyon, this season – and this Sunday, as the first key match of the campaign – is an acid test for them as well.
City have had to cope for a while without Sergio Agüero, who could return this weekend, and Gabriel Jesus, who came off the bench to score against Olympiakos on Tuesday, but with Liverpool having also had to deal with the absence of Alisson this season there is no doubt at all about which side has had the worse luck with injuries. Ferran Torres has done a great job of providing a goal threat but though the return of specialist strikers could make a big difference for City I still see Liverpool edging Sunday’s game. The form of their own attack is just irresistible, with Jota scoring freely and Mo Salah and Mané not letting their own levels dip.
For them to be top, and demolishing major teams in the Champions League like they did Atalanta on Tuesday, despite all the challenges they have had to face, really is impressive. They recruited smartly, and the one attacking player they brought in is the talk of the town and giving Klopp a massive headache when he comes to pick their front three. When they have been forced to throw relative unknowns in Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips into their backline, players who really don’t have the experience to play in those positions in games of such importance, they have looked comfortable despite the huge weight on their shoulders.
These are two brilliant teams with perhaps the two best managers in the world. One of them has every reason to be struggling right now but isn’t. The other has no such excuses, but isn’t quite firing. Sunday’s result at the Etihad could make those situations look even more stark or it could transform them, and that’s what makes the fixture so exciting.