FOX Soccer Exclusive
City cannot afford to lose to Liverpool
Manchester City and Liverpool clash in a pre-Super Bowl rumble (live, FOX Soccer, Sunday, 10:30 a.m. ET) in a massive "Game Before the Game." For the Sky Blues, it’s a chance to claw their way back into the Premier League title hunt; for the Reds of Liverpool, it is a critical test as they seek a European berth.
This fixture has been a luckless one for City over the years, with the Reds winning nearly 50% of their meetings all time. Even the massive injection of Middle Eastern money the Citizens received hasn’t managed to change their luck: in their last ten meetings across all competitions, City have been held to a draw six times by Liverpool, winning just twice. Liverpool also knocked them out of last year’s League Cup and in their lone meeting this year, it was a gift from Martin Skrtel that gave City a share of the points, a 2-2 draw back in late August.
But Liverpool have several knocks against them coming into this fixture as well. They have been on a bleak run of form, with a 5-0 thumping of Norwich sandwiched by bad losses to archrivals Manchester United and a famous FA Cup upset at the hands of tiny Oldham. On Wednesday, Liverpool threw away a two-goal lead at Emirates to give Arsenal a share of the points and to continue an unwanted record under Brendan Rodgers: since he took over, the Reds have failed to beat any team above them in the league table.
Wednesday’s show has to have Rodgers gulping antacids by the crate. Arsenal were dire in the match, with their defense gifting goals and their keeper, and Wojciech Szczesny having a game that will make blooper reels for years to come. What will sting is that despite the partnership of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez — and the ham-handed antics of Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos — Liverpool could not put the game out of sight. That allowed Arsenal to storm back into the match, coming within a whisker of winning it late.
Liverpool’s problem is in their midfield. They have been boosted by Lucas’ return, but they are not getting enough out of Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing or Joe Allen. They lack tenacity and frequently concede possession. And their last-gasp hero, Pepe Reina, has looked off in too many games this season, perhaps worn down by the fraying defense in front of his nets.
What the Reds do have is unquestioned power up top. Suarez, despite his magnetic attraction to controversy, is a world-class talent that Liverpool will be lucky to hang onto this summer. He is one of the few players in the league that can carry an entire team on his shoulders; the problem is that he is starting to fade badly in games, a symptom of overuse.
Manchester City have looked dogged but they have problems of their own. Without the injured Vincent Kompany and the absent Yaya Toure (on duty with Cote D’Ivoire at the African Cup of Nations) City lack stability and sensibility. Yaya’s surging runs out of the back have frequently been the difference for this team, and without his presence, teams are finding it easier to hold the ball.
City had gone on a four-game winning streak that seemed to signal they were back, but Tuesday’s draw against Queen’s Park Rangers put the brakes on that notion. The tie allowed United to pad its lead to seven points the following day against lowly Southampton. More worrying for the Sky Blues is that United enjoys a softer league schedule in February and March. City has to hope that their rivals’ upcoming Champions League games against Real Madrid take a bite out, but the fact is that City now has very little margin for error.
But pound for pound, it’s clear that City are by far the better side. David Silva is hitting his stride once again after looking exhausted this fall; Pablo Zabaleta is probably the most underrated back in the game, and with a strike corps of Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez, City should be able to light teams up.
City also probably benefitted this weekend from the concept of addition by subtraction. In selling Mario Balotelli to Milan, they lost an immensely talented striker who was also an immense pain in the ass. It’s hard not to think that City’s lockeroom will be more harmonious – if less colorful – place with him out the door.
The bottom line is this: this is a game City simply cannot afford to lose if it hopes to retain their crown. Expect them to get the job done.
Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.