Premier League

City must stop Reds exploiting Pep's problem area

 • by Harry Gray
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Title-winning campaigns are often defined by moments in the big games – think Steven Gerrard’s slip or Marc Overmars’ precious winner at Old Trafford in 1998.

It is fair to suggest, then, that events at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday night could go some way to deciding the toss between Manchester City and Liverpool.

Defeat for City and Pep Guardiola’s champions face an uphill task of hauling in 10 points on Jürgen Klopp’s league leaders. By no means insurmountable, but an undeniably daunting proposition.

Couple City’s off colour form – they have lost three of their last five Premier League games – with the rampant showings of Liverpool, and it could prove to be a hugely important night in this high-speed pursuit of Premier League glory.

Liverpool, who Guardiola has already dubbed the best team in the world in a possible thinly-veiled attempt at pre-match mind games, will certainly start the game the happier of the two sides after a free-scoring festive period.

They struck 22 goals in five league games across an unblemished December and remain unbeaten in the league this term. Furthermore, City’s troubles and various selection headaches make this a big chance to assert a firm hand on the tiller for Liverpool.

Back-to-back defeats against Crystal Palace and Leicester City proved the champions can be got at and a previous point of strength has been their undoing.

Full-back, a position Guardiola places particular significance on, will be the area of most concern going into the clash with the Reds.

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City’s wide defenders were lauded last season for the manner in which they drifted about the park, almost entirely vacating their positions to become extra men in midfield as the Citizens dominated possession.

This past month, though, has seen both Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph be culpable of errors which have led to goals. Delph will play no part on Thursday due to picking up a red card in the loss to Leicester and Guardiola is without long-term absentee Benjamin Mendy through injury.

Mendy began the season brightly and, when fit, is always likely to start ahead of Delph who lacks the attacking drive of the Frenchman. With both ruled out, Oleksandr Zinchenko is expected to continue at left-back.

The Ukrainian is a converted midfielder – again Guardiola’s penchant for technically gifted full-backs comes to the fore – and made an error which allowed Southampton’s Pierre-Emile Højbjerg to equalise on Sunday.

City went on to win the game 3-1, but their manager’s assertion that Zinchenko was “the best player on the pitch” seemed somewhat forced, regardless of how the youngster reacted to his mistake.

The error stemmed from a failure to move the ball on quickly and there is little chance he will be afforded time with Liverpool’s hard pressing frontline in town. Only two sides in the league recover the ball in the attacking third more often than Liverpool’s 4.75 per 90 minutes.

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The Reds’ front three of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah set the tempo for that press, but Liverpool have an insatiable work rate across the park which, in fairness, is matched by their title rivals.

All three Liverpool forwards have been in goalscoring form of late and found the net in the 5-1 dismantling of Arsenal. Their efforts helped Klopp’s men score at a rate of 3.1 goals per 90 minutes during December, while City conceded 1.57 goals per league game over the same time period.

Liverpool will, in short, fancy their chances of making it 11 straight games in all competitions without a clean sheet for City.

With City seven points adrift and the chance for Liverpool to put a sea of space between them and their rivals, a goalless draw in the mould of the one seen at Anfield in October would be a surprise.

A desire to avoid defeat led both sides to go against their natural attacking instincts earlier in the campaign, but it is likely Guardiola at least will know the importance of picking up three points, not only to reduce the gap to Liverpool, but also to provide a timely confidence boost to his side.

He will target victory safe in the knowledge he has some of his key men back, after both David Silva and Fernandinho started the game against Southampton. They add vital creativity and steel to City’s ranks respectively and Guardiola will hope they lift the home side on Thursday.

Fail to do so and it is not title race over, but, put it this way, Guardiola and City know just how hard it is to stop a surge for the Premier League when it gets going.

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