Liverpool host Manchester City (live, Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET) that might just decide the Premier League title. Both teams have their destiny in their own hands and the winner – if there is one — will take pole position in the race for the crown.
In one corner, the Reds sit four points clear of City atop the table and are riding a nine-game winning streak in the Premier League. Liverpool have not lost a game at Anfield since September. They have scored more goals than anyone else in the league this season and they have yet to be defeated in 2014. They are closing in on a club-record winning streak that dates back 24 years and control their own destiny, but there’s a hitch: after this match, the Reds must play Chelsea.
In the other, Manchester City have two games in hand, have already beat Liverpool once this season – a 2-1 thriller on Boxing Day that captain Vincent Kompany described as one of City’s toughest and best wins this season – and are also riding a hot streak, with just a single loss in their last ten league games, that to title outsiders Chelsea. They also control their own destiny, but there is a hitch: they have played far more games than Liverpool and must of course win those matches in hand.
Underscoring the importance of the match is how both teams and managers are approaching the game in public. In contrast to a reckless shouter such as Jose Mourinho, Brendan Rodgers and Manuel Pellegrini are preaching calm and respect, a message that has been echoed by both captains.
Last week, Liverpool nearly wobbled against West Ham, winning thanks to two Steven Gerrard penalties. The Reds are actually closing in on the league record for penalties awarded in a season (13, set by Crystal Palace in 2004-05), a reflection of how much pressure their strikers can put on defenses late in games. Rodgers has noted how many questions his top three ask of their opponents, but it is notable that Liverpool seem a team almost designed to win penalties, with a marauding style that seeks to isolate defenders against speedy wingers or strikers.
Much has been written about the SAS+S combination of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, a trio that have powered Liverpool atop the table. But less has been said about Liverpool’s newfound stability at the back. Simon Mignolet deserves player of the year considerations for his steady work in the nets and his excellence in starting the Reds’ counter-attacks. And Martin Skrtel, snakebit so often, has settled down into a reliable presence in front of him. While Liverpool’s back line is hardly star-studded, it has gained confidence and looks nothing like the sieve it did at the start of the year.
Manchester City also had some work to do against Southampton last week, and the 4-1 final scoreline does not actually reflect the tenor of the game. The Saints actually revealed how liable Yaya Toure and Fernandinho can be, and suffered two strokes of ill luck. The first was a City goal that was clearly yards offside; the second was the loss of Jay Rodriguez for six months after he did his ACL. Both events doused Southampton’s fire, but for a solid half it was obvious that a faster and more ruthless attack would have damaged City indeed.
Toure is an untouchable figure at the Etihad, universally adored by the City faithful regardless of his failings. At his best, he is an unstoppable force in midfield, driving a seething attack and capable of changing the game. But his failure to track back leaves Vincent Kompany and Martin Demichelis badly exposed, which has cost City in several games to date. With Liverpool looking to isolate Demichelis in particular, this is going to be a key area to watch early.
But Anfield has been a fortress — no top-four side has won there against Liverpool this season — and the Reds’ sweeping attack from the opening whistle has a lot to do with that. Boasting the uncommon ability to run the blitz, Liverpool have scored early and often against the best of the best since the turn of the year here, rocking Arsenal with two goals inside the first ten minutes; pinning back Spurs in just the second minute; and cracking Everton’s resistance right on the stroke of the 20th minute. Moreover, Liverpool have conceded just a single goal against clubs in the top seven at home (that was a penalty conceded to a well-defeated Arsenal team) and haven’t lost at home to City in the Premier League since 2003.
But City do have one big weapon back. Sergio Aguero is fit and expected to play a part in Sunday’s match, and he is as potent a scorer as Suarez. Given Pellegrini’s penchant for attack at all costs, don’t expect City to play it safe by clogging the midfield. Expect instead a shootout between two of England’s best and most exciting teams.