Manchester City vs. Liverpool: what to expect
For the first time in 10,650 days, Liverpool will run out as champions of England when they take on Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday night.
In a quirk of the fixture list, their maiden outing as Premier League winners comes against the team they usurped as kings of England, meaning that Man City will give their successors a guard of honour before the game.
It has been a long and arduous journey at times since then – a statement that could apply for the 30 intervening years as a whole or just the three-month coronavirus stoppage which at one stage threatened to rob them of an overdue return to their perch.
Whether it was worth the wait is a matter of personal opinion, but Jurgen Klopp and his class of 2019-20 have ensured that they did it in style, wrapping up the title two games earlier than any other team in English top-flight history had managed before.
Of course, they owe some thanks to Thursday’s opponents for that – it was Man City’s 2-1 defeat at Chelsea last Thursday that officially secured the title for Liverpool with seven games of the season remaining as the previous champions stayed 23 points adrift with only 21 points now left to play for.
The result was City’s eighth league defeat of the season – a record total for Pep Guardiola in his managerial career – and their drop-off in form from the last two seasons, when they amassed a combined 198 points, has been one of the major reasons why Liverpool’s triumph has been so emphatic.
However, that should take nothing away from Liverpool’s own achievements; they have bludgeoned their way to success with sheer relentlessness the like of which has never been seen before in England or any of Europe’s top five leagues.
Even Man City’s centurions of 2017-18 – statistically the best team in English history – would be five points adrift of Klopp’s side at this stage of the season, and the Reds are well on course to either break or match almost every record Guardiola’s side set in that remarkable campaign.
Of course, that does rely on Liverpool not letting up over the closing stages of the season, but Klopp has already warned the rest of the league that his side will not stop despite having already secured the only trophy left available to them.
Man City will not stop either; Guardiola has suggested that he will prioritise other competitions, which is understandable given that their league ambitions are over and their final position could be irrelevant due to their European ban, whereas they could still end the campaign with an EFL Cup, FA Cup and Champions League treble.
However, the Spaniard is not the type of manager who will accept a drop-off in the meantime, as proven by that incredible 198-point haul over the previous two campaigns.
The players themselves will take it as a personal affront that they have to give a guard of honour too; it is something they will willingly do given that they have received more applause than anyone else in recent years, but it is not something they will particularly enjoy.
The guard of honour will add extra incentive for Man City to inflict a rare defeat on their usurpers, as will the desire to prevent them moving a step closer to breaking their record for most points and most wins in a single campaign.
While the desire to do that will be there, the ability to do so might not – Liverpool have dropped points in only three Premier League games all season and have surrendered only two points from 10 matches against the top seven, including six wins from six against the current top five.
By contrast, seven of Man City’s eight defeats this season have come in their 11 games against teams currently in the top seven, with only three wins.
Interestingly, Man City have also only scored first in two of their nine league games against the current top six, compared to Liverpool’s far superior record of breaking the deadlock in seven of their eight such matches.
However, there is cause for Man City optimism in Liverpool’s away form; the Reds have been faultless at Anfield this term but come into Thursday’s match winless and goalless in their last four away games across all competitions – a run which stretches back to February 15.
Liverpool have never gone five away games without a win under Klopp, but they come up against a Man City side that has won six and lost none of their last seven league games at the Etihad – including scoring eight goals without reply in their two such matches since lockdown.
Thursday’s match will no doubt evoke memories of Liverpool’s last visit to the Etihad, when Leroy Sane scored the winner and John Stones hooked the ball away when it was 11.7mm from crossing the line.
Indeed, Man City naturally provide a good barometer of Liverpool’s progress in recent years; the Reds finished 25 points behind Guardiola’s side in 2017-18, were one point – or less than 12mm – from the title last season and now enjoy a 23-point lead – a remarkable 48-point swing against one of the best teams English football has ever seen.
Man City will no doubt bounce back, and Thursday’s match gives them an immediate chance to show Liverpool that things will be different next season, but for the Reds it will be a celebratory occasion as well as an opportunity to underline their dominance this term.
Guardiola has hinted that he will prioritise the cup competitions going forward, and he named a strong side during Sunday’s FA Cup triumph over Newcastle United.
The likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Aymeric Laporte, David Silva, Gabriel Jesus and Riyad Mahrez all started, meaning that they are all also candidates to be rested for the next match.
Ederson, Rodri, Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden are among the players who will be hoping for a recall to the starting lineup, but City are still missing the suspended Fernandinho and the injured Sergio Aguero.
Eric Garcia remains a doubt with a head injury, although the required period to recover from concussion has now passed and he could therefore be in contention.
Liverpool, meanwhile, will be without Joel Matip for the remainder of the campaign due to a foot injury he sustained in the Merseyside derby.
James Milner also picked up a hamstring problem in that match and remains a major doubt for this game, but Xherdan Shaqiri has now returned to training.
The Reds are unlikely to ring the changes despite winning the title and could even name an unchanged team to the one which thrashed Crystal Palace last time out.
Mohamed Salah has scored just two away goals all season, but his drought has been covered by Roberto Firmino, who has netted six goals in seven away games versus top-half teams in 2019-20.
Prediction: Man City 2-2 Liverpool
This fixture usually guarantees goals, and Thursday’s clash is a particularly interesting one. Man City will want to make a point against the team that has taken their crown off them, whereas Liverpool will want to stamp their authority on a celebratory occasion.
It is a match which could easily go either way, but Liverpool are better suited to playing against Man City than any other team in the world and, with City’s main priorities now laying elsewhere, we are backing the visitors to chalk up win number 29 of a remarkable season.