If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have told you that this fixture was coming too early in the season. But for both teams, the fate of their respective league campaigns could be decided tonight. Safe to say that if Liverpool wins, they are safely in the driver’s seat to first their first league title since 1990. City are looking to close the gap and remind the Reds of their 2013-14 campaign. There is a lot weighing on this fixture. And this might end up being the perfect time for a showdown between two Goliaths. The paths they have taken to reach this point make this an incredibly unique contest and the repercussions make this more than just a fixture among 38.
Twice before have Liverpool led on Christmas day though the Merseyside club was beaten to the title by Manchester United (in 2008/09) and their rivals City (in the infamous 2013/14 season). Once again, should they beat the defending champions at their stadium, they will take a double-digit lead. The last time Liverpool won a league title, the Premier League was a couple of years away from being conceived. History has evaded them before. Klopp is preparing his side to ensure that this will not happen again.
The mark of a dynasty in team sports is the ability to repeat as champions. Manchester United (on multiple occasions) and Chelsea have been able to defend their titles. Twice before Guardiola have City been crowned as Premier League title holders and when called upon to repeat, their campaigns have been disappointing at best. This would make a statement to the rest of the league should The Citizens emerge victorious. They are still the Champions and the road to the title goes through them. They could build towards another historic run of games should they win.
Over the past eighteen months, City have been able to construct winning runs that crush the hopes of the other contenders. The feeling of being a juggernaut has been missing this season. While City were fantastic for most of the first half of the season, the standard they in their last title run might just be impossibly high to surpass. Should they channel the otherworldly dominance of last season, the momentum will swing back to their side for the second half of the season with all the pressure transferring to Liverpool. Should things fall in City’s way, the gap will fall to a meager four points and the heartbreak of the past three decades will add up in each of Liverpool’s remaining fixtures.
But what if all the hype results in a subpar fixture? Sometimes the matches with the highest stakes result in a dreary draw with managers and teams looking to play it safe. Historically, this has not been the case between City and Liverpool. Only thrice in their past 14 meetings has this been the case – the most recent of which was the 0-0 draw in October. Riyad Mahrez’s missed penalty which seemed somewhat insignificant a few weeks ago might have more value given how the table currently stands. And yet, both these managers are not the kind to play risk-free football. Given their respective philosophies, the idea of playing safe might be their biggest risk.
The best thing about this fixture is that at this moment in time, all the pressure is firmly in the City locker-room. After their historic title run last season, something similar was expected this time around. But the Champions of England do not have the same spark of last year. And Liverpool has capitalized on the cutting edge that City (at least on the surface) appeared to have lost. A win is a must if Guardiola truly wants to cement his status among the annals of City’s history. He must figure out how to transform their poor run of form into a show of absolute dominance. There is that which is coupled with his side facing the best defense in the country.
How Klopp approaches the fixture is an entirely different debate. City will take the fight to his XI but should he face fire with fire? Securing a win is paramount as he will not look to leave anything to chance. Liverpool are not going to offer space for the likes of Bernardo and David Silva to exploit. Easier said than done with injuries to Joe Gomez and Joel Matip. But their greatest success in the past year has been the addition of Virgil van Dijk. A back four led by the towering Dutchman has been the biggest weapon for a manager normally associated for a flowing attacking philosophy. The calculated and conservation approach of October gifted Liverpool a draw from the jaw of defeat. A balance between their recent scoring boom and a cautious possession-based game could be the winning formula.
But caution might just embolden a City side their backs against the wall. This might be a great position to start from. When backed down, it serves as a place for great support before coming out with a big swing.
Even the likes of Southampton – who are currently in a battle to say atop for one more season – were able to find the holes in City’s defense. Sometimes the best defense is offense. If a side currently sitting in 18th place could expose the title holder’s, imagine the havoc Liverpool could do? But on the flipside, is this what Guardiola wants? Opening up the game would be perfect for City’s attacking players. One false step, one bad pass and it could be all over.
It is clear for the Catalan manager. Focuses and relentless pressure is the way to go. But the lack of quality (and healthy) left back is a thorn on his side. Given the form Mohammed Salah is in, Zinchenko cannot repeat the stifling defensive performance that nearly cost City three points. Building form the middle is the way for Pep. Losing the ball on the flanks to one of Liverpool’s wide players could very well cost them the title.
Figuring out the many problems such a matchup creates is exactly what is made Pep and Klopp two of the best in their profession. Both have much to plan out and rising tension has reached its zenith. Maybe kickoff might come as a welcome relief. The build-up has been intense and why shouldn’t it be? It is only the league title at stake.