Liverpool v Manchester City: Key battles
Liverpool host Manchester City in a much-anticipated top-of-the-table battle at Anfield on Sunday afternoon.
The two sides, who were separated by a single point at the end of a relentless Premier League title race last season, meet for the first time in the division this term with Jürgen Klopp’s team six points clear of Pep Guardiola’s charges having won 10 of their 11 fixtures.
Where could this one be decided? We take a look at three of the interesting individual duels that could affect the final result…
Trent Alexander-Arnold v Raheem Sterling
Two England internationals are likely to go head-to-head on the flank at Anfield.
Right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold became a Liverpool centurion against Aston Villa last weekend and marked the occasion with an assist for Sadio Mane’s 94th-minute winner, which kept the Reds six points ahead of City at the summit.
The No.66 came of age with an outstanding performance in the 2018 Champions League quarter-final between these two teams and has not looked back since, leading to a Ballon d’Or nomination no less.
Alexander-Arnold has played every minute of the Reds’ Premier League season and posted some highly impressive numbers: one goal, three assists, 37 key passes, 85.7 per cent tackle success rate, 28 clearances and 18 interceptions.
And, coming into this weekend’s round of matches, no player has had more touches of the ball this season than his 1,146.
The Scouser is set to lock horns with former Liverpool forward Raheem Sterling, who typically operates from the left-hand side of Guardiola’s front three.
Now just a month short of his 25th birthday, Sterling has been in blistering goalscoring form this season with 14 strikes in 16 outings in all competitions.
That tally included his first against the Reds since departing the club in the summer of 2015, when the rivals opened the campaign in August’s Community Shield tie at Wembley.
Blessed with searing pace and acceleration, the City No.7 is also diligent and strong defensively, making for an intriguing test of whether Alexander-Arnold or Sterling can push the other back.
Fabinho v Kevin De Bruyne
Fabinho was left out of the Liverpool XI at Villa Park last weekend perhaps with one eye on this match – he is a yellow card away from a suspension – but can expect to return to the heart of Klopp’s midfield on Sunday.
The Brazilian has made the most tackles (25) of any player in either squad this season in the Premier League but is equally adept at launching attacks for his team as shutting down those of the opposition.
He was imperious throughout the previous league game at Anfield, a 2-1 comeback win over Tottenham Hotspur, with his awareness, agility and use of the ball crucial to keeping the Reds on the front foot.
“He needs to be the one who protects us constantly,” explained assistant manager Pepijn Lijnders after Fabinho’s Man of the Match display against Spurs.
“He is controlling a very important space for counter-attacks. He does that as nobody else, that’s why I called him ‘the lighthouse’ – he guides us. He controls that space as nobody else.”
One man certain to be trying to interrupt Fabinho’s flow at Anfield will be Kevin De Bruyne.
Back to full fitness, the classy Belgian playmaker has already racked up nine assists in 10 Premier League appearances this term – more than twice as many as anybody else before this weekend.
In Guardiola’s system, De Bruyne has the licence to drift across the pitch in search of space to exploit and, more often than not, can take advantage through his powerful shooting or pinpoint delivery.
He has averaged an Opta-defined key pass every 25 minutes in league football in 2019-20 so far and also chipped in with two goals.
Which of these two all-rounders can dominate that area of the pitch the better could be integral to the way Sunday’s showdown unfolds.
Roberto Firmino v Fernandinho
Roberto Firmino enjoys facing City.
The No.9’s first Liverpool goal came in a 4-1 victory at Etihad Stadium in November 2015 and he has scored five times against the Manchester club in total.
Used only as a late substitute for the midweek win over Genk in the Champions League, he will therefore come into this mouth-watering encounter with fresh legs.
Though Firmino has found the net only three times himself so far this season, his inventiveness and unpredictability as the central point of Klopp’s attacking trio has been the genesis of many goals for others.
Adept at moving deep, wide or in behind the opposition defence to impose himself on a game, the Reds star will primarily aim to damage a visiting backline featuring a compatriot.
Fernandinho has been the constant in central defence for City’s past six Premier League matches, with Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones predominantly alternating next to the Brazilian.
Redeployed from midfield, the 34-year-old’s experience and know-how lend a calming presence to his team and have contributed to five wins and three clean sheets in that run of half-a-dozen games, though he was sent off in the closing moments against Villa last month.
“Fernandinho is a clever player and so intelligent, an incredible guy,” explained Guardiola after making the switch earlier this season due to several defensive injuries.
“He is a player who can play many positions and has a good personality – that’s why he is so important for us. I didn’t have doubts that he would [look so comfortable in the back four].”