Meetings between Liverpool and Manchester City are seldom not momentous and yet this game feels particularly significant even for their recent clashes. Victory for the reigning champions would revive a title defense in danger of flatlining while City are chasing a 14th straight win in all competitions as they bid to affirm their status as the best team in England, if not all of Europe.
Defeat for Jurgen Klopp's men would open up a 10 point gap between them and the top of the table but will they suffer a potentially decisive blow against City? We examine the game - and make some bold predictions - below.
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Liverpool's title challenge reaches its conclusion
Perhaps this prediction, writing off the candidacy of the reigning champions with a little over half of the season played, isn't as bold as it sounds. After all, what evidence has there been over recent weeks that a team that is struggling for rhythm and cohesion in attack like Liverpool are can break down the best defense in the Premier League? Equally, why should the Reds' cobbled together backline be able to hold at bay a Manchester City attack that has clicked into gear in recent weeks?
Of course it will not be that simple. It is safe to assumed that Liverpool will raise their game for the visit of their great recent rivals. In the Premier League, Pep Guardiola has lost to Klopp more times than any other manager. These two share a 3-3-3 record against each other, signifying that their sides have been evenly matched since the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss arrived in 2016.
And yet there has been a footballing chasm between these two sides over recent weeks, one that is not down to Liverpool's underlying performances being bad per se so much as City having opened a vast expanse between not only the defending champions, but every other team in the Premier League as well.
Since January 1 Guardiola's side have the league's highest expected goals per match at 2.09, the highest actual goals at 2.57, more possession than any other side and by far the longest average time in possession. Curiously one of the few major attacking statistics in which they have not set the pace is in big chances created where they are second to a Tottenham side that have fallen off a cliff in goal output without Harry Kane.
Their defensive numbers are similarly impressive. The average opponent for City since the turn of the year gets away just 5 shots per match with a combined expected goals value of 0.37. Such is the excellence of the backline - Ruben Dias has blocked 16 percent of shots on the City goal since the turn of the year with Ederson registering only one more save than his center back has blocks - that they've somehow crept under that low xG bar with just one Premier League goal conceded since the start of 2021.
In short, City are the most effective attacking and defensive team in the Premier League. For all that Liverpool's underlying numbers suggest they are creating good chances, defending well and just getting unlucky they are not performing on the same level as their visitors at Anfield on Sunday. It would be no surprise if they were to be defeated. It would be a surprise if Guardiola's side were then to allow a 10 point lead over their perennial rivals to be overturned before the end of the season.
Defenders restore Liverpool's attacking punch
Another game in which Liverpool struggled to register any real punch in the final third came in the 1-0 defeat to Brighton on Wednesday, the Reds shaky foundations in defence echoing throughout the pitch. All of 599 passes and Klopp's side managed to create only six chances, to register only two shots in the attacking penalty area that weren't blocked.
It is now treading over old ground to explain why Liverpool's attacking problems start in defense but to put it succinctly, a backline of redeployed midfielders and youth team graduates inhibits the full-backs from attacking with such verve and the midfield struggles to function as it once did with Jordan Henderson further down the pitch. Thiago has impressed in flashes but, returning from long-term injury and adapting to a new league, he is not yet at the level where he can unlock Premier League defenses at will. Little wonder then that the Reds' post-Christmas shot output is so dominated by long range efforts or attempts from a bad angle.
There is hope on the horizon. Fabinho is due back in training ahead of the game and although he would be better in a defensive midfield role the Liverpool defense looks better with him in it. He could even be paired with a new signing after the deadline day trolley dash that brought Ozan Kabak from Schalke and Ben Davies from Preston North End.
"In an ideal world, you have a few weeks and work together on defensive things, especially organization and all these kind of things," Klopp said ahead of Sunday's game. "Ben and Ozan had yesterday an analyze meeting – and they trained – where they got shown all the stuff we do usually, like a center half movie.
"So [Friday], proper session. Tomorrow, proper session and we will see. I don't know yet."
The temptation will be strong. For all that giving Kabak or Davies or both their debut on Sunday constitutes throwing them in at the deep end, there is no little reward to be gained from rebalancing the side further up the pitch. Ultimately if Liverpool have signed these two center backs they must believe they are good enough to play for them. Why wait to give them a chance to prove it?
Gundogan rises to the occasion
On David Silva's departure at the end of last season it was widely assumed that Phil Foden would bear the mantle of the next central midfield schemer who, along with Kevin De Bruyne, could charm his way through opposing defenses. The English youngster has undoubtedly shone this season under a brighter spotlight, but it has not been him who has excelled in the Etihad engine room.
Instead, Ilkay Gundogan has offered a timely reminder of why he was coveted by every club in Europe when he left Borussia Dortmund for Manchester in 2016. It is not that he has not been very good in the intervening four-and-a-half years (he frequently has been) but it would be fair to say he has at times seemed stuck between two roles. On occasion he would need to act as a Fernandinho-lite, the defensive midfielder at the base of City's midfield, on others as more of a free eight with license to attack and create.
How Ilkay Gundogan's role has changed this season
Open play shots
Open play passes in attacking third
All stats Premier League, per 90 minutes
This season Gundogan finds himself in no such limbo. He is clearly a more attack-minded player and already he has set a personal best for goals in an English league campaign. He has slotted comfortably into the role to the left of Kevin De Bruyne and dovetails excellently with the Belgian, for whom he has created seven chances of the 27 he has made in the Premier League this season. No one has had more opportunities made for them.
In the last three games he has not had his fellow eight alongside him yet Gundogan has been more pivotal than ever. The 2-0 win over Burnley was the first time the German international created five chances in a Premier League match, the pick of them a superb driven cross from the byline from which Raheem Sterling scored the decisive second goal. It made rather a change for him to be provider rather with all of his seven goals having come in the last 10 games.
"Seven goals, he's got assists, 22 chances created - this is from the last 10 games," CBS Sports' Champions League pundit and former Manchester City defender Micah Richards said on Match of the Day this week. "If you look at the 20 games prior to that, it's nowhere near."
Richards is of course right. In those 20 games, a period which dates back to July 2, Gundogan created five chances, scored no goals and provided no assists. His recent form may be a hot streak - particularly in front of goal - but there is no doubting it is a better reflection of his quality than what he offered at the tail end of last season. There is no reason to assume he will not keep it up at Anfield.