Man City make the short journey to Anfield on Sunday for what is sure to be one of the defining games of this year’s title race.
The battle to be crowned Premier League champions is closer than ever this year, and with a month to go until the final day of the season, the clash between Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool and Manuel Pellegrini’s City will have profound implications for where the trophy will end up.
What makes this game even more intriguing is that it will feature the two sides that have scored the most goals in the division this season. Liverpool have managed an astonishing 90 goals in their 33 games, whilst City have managed a not-too-shabby 84 in 31. In terms of attacking intent, these two sides are streets ahead of the rest of the teams in the division, with Chelsea third in the scoring charts scoring 19 fewer than City despite playing two more games.
What remains to be seen is whether Sunday’s clash will showcase the free-flowing football that has been a hallmark of both sides’ success.
It is likely that the onus will very much be on Liverpool to take the game to City. Despite what he has said to the press, Pellegrini may well see a draw as a decent result at Anfield, particularly as his team have two games in hand over Rodgers’ side and will only face one other top ten team in their other five remaining matches.
With this in mind, Pellegrini may well be content to set his team up to sit back and soak up Liverpool’s pressure and hope to catch them out on the counter attack. With Sergio Aguero back in contention after injury, Pellegrini will be able to add crucial pace to his forward line, and he will hope that this will enable his side to transition quickly from defence to attack and exploit Liverpool’s attacking strategy.
For Liverpool, this is a must-win game. Failure to take maximum points from this fixture will almost certainly see them knocked off top spot if Chelsea are able to defeat Stoke on Saturday, and given that City will then be at most three points behind Liverpool with a superior goal difference, the Reds would then probably be relegated to third favourites in the race for the title.
However, taking the game to City is easier said than done. Rodgers’ side will need to press high up the pitch in their usual fashion, but doing so will necessitate opening up at the back. Generally Liverpool rely heavily on Glen Johnson and Jon Flanagan to provide crucial attacking width from both fullback positions, but by sending both defenders forward the Reds will leave themselves vulnerable to the counter-attacking threat of Aguero and Jesus Navas.
In order to attempt to deal with this threat, Rodgers may be tempted to employ his 4-3-3 formation as opposed to his midfield diamond. This set-up allows the fullbacks to get forward in the knowledge that Steven Gerrard can drop back in between the two centre backs to provide added defensive stability, but it also makes Liverpool less of an attacking threat by forcing Raheem Sterling wide as opposed to ‘in the hole’ behind the two frontmen.
This importance of solving this dilemma of which formation to play should be understated. As we stated, Liverpool simply must win this game if they are to remain in the title race, and in order to do that they are going to have to score goals. With that in mind Rodgers may be tempted to throw caution to the wind and go all-out attack, but the reality is that if his side are to play in that fashion, there is a high chance of them being picked apart on the counter.
Whatever formation Rodgers opts for, he will know that his big players will need to be on song if they are to vanquish big-spending City. He will rely on Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge to create chances, and will hope that calming influence of Steven Gerrard in the middle of the park will provide them with another stability in their own half. With Liverpool needing three points and forced to attack, and City one of the most impressive counter attacking teams, this one has all the makings of a classic.
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