2018 has ended with a bang for all of Premier League and very much so for Liverpool supporters. It has not been so great for Manchester City supporters. This Thursday night, for their first game of 2019, the two title rivals, who between them have a 98% chance of winning the league, will face up for the second time in the league season. It is a game that had “Title-Decider” written all over it even before the start of the season, and indeed, as the table currently stands, it will tilt the title odds hugely in favour of Liverpool if they win on Thursday and it will give City better (still long) title odds if they win.
Manchester City have to absolutely win on Thursday night. They cannot afford a loss at all. They start the year 7 points behind Liverpool and need to close that gap instead of widening it. Good news for them is that they have lost their first game of the year only once in the last 12 years (to Sunderland in 2012). After losing twice in two matches, to Crystal Palace and Leicester City, they were able to get a semblance of control by defeating Southampton away from home in the last game. But, facing a rampant, well-rested Liverpool at home is something quite different than giving the Saints a run-around at St. Mary’s. Pep Guardiola has a number of injury concerns but also has some key members of the squad returning from injuries. In the return fixture at Anfield, Guardiola had been extremely pragmatic and returned with a respectable goalless draw. This time, however, he cannot afford pragmatism or a draw and will have to play for the win.
Opponents playing for the win is generally one of the strengths of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. We do not have to look too far back to see an example also. In their last game, against Arsenal at home, the Reds were sharp but did not create any meaningful opportunities early in the game. Then the Gunners scored, and Liverpool responded with 5 goals of their own. Having said that, this is one game that even Klopp will approach with caution. He knows that a win here will make his side’s already stronghold at the top of the table, even stronger – not that any side in the history of top-flight has allowed the title to slip after entering the new year with a 7-point lead. Liverpool have also had their fair share of good luck this season. Their fixtures over the busy festive period have been slightly less congested than all other teams in the league. They are now getting penalty decisions in their favour. Klopp will hope that with some luck and through their amazing skills, his side can ensure a minimum lead of 9 points after Thursday.
- Liverpool have some history going for them and some against them in this fixture. Manchester City have won just one of their last 11 meetings with Liverpool in all competitions (D3 L7), although the one win was a 5-0 thrashing handed out to the Reds at Etihad in the same fixture last season.
- Liverpool have won only once in their last nine league visits to the Etihad Stadium (D3 L5), winning 1-4 in Klopp’s first away game against City in 2015-16. The Blues have scored 20 goals in those nine games (2.2 goals per game). However, the last time Liverpool visited the Etihad in all competitions, they won 1-2 in the Champions League quarterfinal last season.
- Manchester City last lost two consecutive home league games in February 2016, losing to Spurs and Leicester City. Pep Guardiola has never lost two consecutive home league games. But then he is facing his toughest opponent. His teams have lost more to Jurgen Klopp’s teams in his managerial career. However, at home, he has lost only twice (P6 W2 D2 L2).
- January has traditionally been a difficult month for Liverpool. The Reds have won only five of their last 17 matches in all competitions in January (D5 L7), with the Reds losing nine of Jurgen Klopp’s 24 matches during the month (W8 D7).
In a side that has scored 54 goals in just 20 games in the league, there are bound to be many important goal scorers. But the most important for Guardiola in this decisive meeting with Liverpool is a former Red. Raheem Sterling is having a very productive season for City – scoring 9 goals and providing 6 assists in just 17 appearances. xG90 of 0.50 and xA90 of 0.40 indicate a high probability (90%) of Sterling contributing a goal if he plays the full 90 minutes. However, his record against his old team is not that great, having played more than 450 minutes against them without scoring or assisting a league goal. Guardiola will be hoping that Sterling can end the streak on Thursday.
Mohamed Salah has no such goalless streaks to break on Thursday. In fact, he has contributed five goals in his last four games against the Citizens in all competitions (three goals, two assists). The man who was unfairly called a one-season wonder is very much in this season’s race for the golden boot and with xG90 of 0.68 and xA90 of 0.40, is almost certain to contribute a goal if he plays more than 90 minutes. Klopp will be hoping that he performs at least as per his averages on Thursday.
Manchester City have some crises due to injuries in some positions. Kevin De Bruyne’s latest injury, Fabian Delph’s suspension, and Gundogan’s injury concerns have left City with few options in the midfield. Guardiola will be happy that one of those options is a now fit Fernandinho. Leroy Sane and John Stones could both return to the starting XI, but Guardiola might plug the left-back position with Aymeric Laporte and not with Zinchenko. Kyle Walker’s form has been suspect as is his place in the starting XI.
For Liverpool, there are no new injury concerns, other than the long-term ones of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gomez, and Matip. James Milner was also ruled out before the last game. This might open the door for Jordan Henderson and even Naby Keita to play in the midfield, possibly keeping Shaqiri away from a starting spot. Rest of the team selects itself, so Klopp has few worries on that front, especially as four days between games have given the Reds ample time to recover.
Although this is a game that the Champions City cannot afford to lose, Liverpool have been in phenomenal form this season. Their defence will make City’s attackers work hard for any goal and the Liverpool attack gave a glimpse of their terrifying form against Arsenal in the last match. City’s frailties in defence mean that containing the rampaging Reds attack will also be tough. City will, of course, fight tooth and nail but eventually, Liverpool should emerge the victors on Thursday night. If so, it promises to be a very happy 2019 for all Liverpool fans.