By Séamus Leonard
Last Sunday’s 2-1 win over West Ham United at Upton Park was yet another landmark victory for Liverpool in a season of sublime strikes, (at times) dreadful defending and staggering statistics. In one way it was just another three Premier League points gained. In another way, it was another massive hurdle jumped in this most barnstorming of campaigns. The simple fact it was Liverpool’s ninth win on the bounce illustrates how well Liverpool has been performing of late.
The prize for victory at Anfield this Sunday could not be much bigger. Whichever side wins has its destiny in its own hands. Defeat would be a massive blow to either side’s title hopes, though not necessarily a terminal setback, as there is still plenty of scope for dropped points before the league comes to a conclusion on May 11. A draw would open the door to Chelsea to get itself right back into the mix, assuming Jose Mourinho’s men can do the needful against Swansea City later on Sunday afternoon.
There is still the sense that Liverpool remains the underdog in this title race, but manager Brendan Rodgers and his players will not be at all perturbed by that status. The Reds have been upsetting the odds all season, and they would be only too pleased to prove a few more doubters wrong this weekend.
The victory at West Ham last Sunday was not as emphatic or exciting as many of the 23 league wins Liverpool now has to its name this season, but it was arguably one of the most impressive and important. Both Chelsea and Man City had won their games on Saturday, and those results only served to put further pressure on what was already a difficult assignment. It took two Steven Gerrard penalties to swing the tie in Liverpool’s favor, but the scoreline didn’t reflect how well Rodgers’ charges managed to hold onto the lead and secure the victory against a West Ham side that had won six of its previous nine league games.
After the jaunt to London’s East End, Liverpool now returns to Anfield. The famous ground is becoming an increasingly intimidating venue for opposing sides to visit. The atmosphere for the 4-0 win over Tottenham a fortnight ago was magnificent, and it will probably be cranked up a couple of notches for Sunday’s encounter.
In terms of team selection, Sergio Aguero is almost certain to start up front for City. The Argentina international has endured an injury-disrupted season, and his return from a hamstring complaint would certainly add an edge to the Sky Blues’ attack. Edin Dzeko has chipped in with some crucial goals in Aguero’s absence, but Alvaro Negredo has gone off the boil a after a superb start to the season.
David Silva has excelled in the hole behind Dzeko recently, and City boss Manuel Pellegrini may be tempted to keep the diminutive Spaniard in that position to occupy Gerrard. If that transpires, Dzeko may find himself relegated to the bench through circumstance rather than any fault of his.
Pellegrini’s other big calls will comes in defense, where he must choose between Martin Demichelis and Joleon Lescott at center back, and Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov at left-back.
Rodgers has big calls to make as well, with the Liverpool squad as fit, energized and confident as at any juncture this season. Mamadou Sakho didn’t put a foot wrong at center back last weekend in place of the injured Daniel Agger, and it would be no surprise to see the Frenchman remain in the starting line-up despite his team-mate’s recovery.
Midfield, as it normally is, will be a vital battleground in Sunday’s game, and it is the selection in this area that will be the toughest for Rodgers. The Northern Irishman has backed his players all season, with his choices generally showing confidence his own side’s ability, rather than fear of what the opposition can do.
It is likely, therefore, that he will throw his duo of midfield starlets, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho, into the fray once again. Playing the pair in the same side has not always worked to good effect this season, but the results have been spectacular when it has. And with Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen warming the bench, Rodgers will not want for an alternative plan should one or both of Sterling and Coutinho fail to shine in what is sure to be a tense occasion.
Not that big occasions have fazed this Liverpool side this season. Away defeats to Man City and Chelsea during the holiday period have long since been forgotten as the likes of Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham have all been put to the sword at Anfield since then.
At the time the defeats to City and Chelsea were seen as confirmation that Liverpool had overachieved in the first half of the season, and that the Reds’ position at top spot at Christmas was an aberration that would soon be corrected.
In hindsight, however, the quality of Liverpool’s performances in those losses at the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge set the tone for what has followed since. Liverpool has not lost a league game in 2014, with the only dropped points coming at home to Aston Villa and away to West Brom at The Hawthorns.
The level of consistency Rodgers has coaxed from his side has been incredible. There simply has not been a better side in the league since the turn of the year. Therefore, there really is no fear in the Liverpool camp. We know what to expect from them. The real question is will Man City be able to cope with not only what the men in red throw at them, but also with the white hot atmosphere generated by a home crowd with the scent of a first top-flight title in 24 years in their nostrils? And with the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster this coming Tuesday, emotions will be especially raw in the stands of the iconic Merseyside venue.
Liverpool striker Luis Suarez is just one goal away from bringing his league total to a remarkable 30 for the season. The Uruguayan has been by far and away the most consistent and influential player in the league this season, and you get the feeling that it is inevitable that a contribution from the number seven will prove the difference on the day.
City has the best squad in the division. Liverpool has the best starting 11. There is little to choose between them, so we’d better just sit back and let them at it.
Liverpool v Manchester City
When: Sunday, April 13, 0837 EST/1337 BST
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Previous Premier League match: West Ham 1-2 Liverpool, Manchester City 4-1 Southampton
League Position 2013-14: Liverpool 1st (74 points), Manchester City 3rd (70 points)
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Skrtel, Sakho, Flanagan
MID: Henderson, Gerrard, Coutinho, Sterling
FW: Suarez, Sturridge
Subs from: Jones, Agger, Cissokho, Toure, Kelly, Allen, Lucas, Luis Alberto, Teixeira, Aspas, Moses
Projected Manchester City Starting 11
DEF: Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Clichy
MID: Milner, Toure, Fernandinho, Silva, Nasri
Subs from: Pantilimon, Richards, Kolarov, Lescott, Boyata, Garcia, Rodwell, Jovetic, Negredo, Dzeko
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard