Premier League: Tale of two Citys and two Liverpools

Injuries have completely derailed the champions, despite flashes of brilliance this season
Premier League: Tale of two Citys and two Liverpools

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk gets a season-ending injury from a challenge by Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford at Goodison Park back in October. Picture: Laurence Griffiths/PA Wire.

ANOTHER weekend, another 'Super Sunday' top-of-the-table clash to decide who wins the league title, as champions Liverpool host leaders Manchester City in Anfield. 

Well, that was the narrative before Brighton and Hove Albion threw a spanner in the works on Wednesday.

This fixture last season saw Liverpool take a commanding lead in the race to the Premier League title with a dominant 3-1 victory over the then defending champions. A win highlighted by a rocket of a strike from Fabinho to the back of the net from outside the box. The victory established the platform and lead that would become unassailable for the chasing pack for the rest of the season.

But that was November 2019, and a lot of football and life has flown under the bridge since then.

Sure Liverpool would eventually be crowned champions in July, but arguably they are far from the confident, net-busting side of that late autumn Sunday evening of last season. Indeed, Man City are not quite the same side they were last season either.

In a way, there has been a role reversal in the character of the two top sides of recent Premier League history.

Peculiarly, with a game in hand, a Man City victory in Anfield on Sunday could well put a lock on the lead similar to Liverpool's path to the title last season. 

UNSTABLE DEFENCE

Liverpool, last season, were able to capitalise on their established prolific front-three confident in the knowledge that the side also had a defence capable of shutting down the majority of threats from their opponents. 

The stalwart nature of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren, and Joel Matip at the centre of defence allowed Liverpool's two full-backs the freedom to run the wings, providing an essential service to the forwards. It allowed Jordan Henderson and Fabinho in midfield the space to assist the offence without constantly fearing of having to secure their flanks such was the confidence they had in their centre backs.

Liverpool's tales of woe at centre back this season are well known now. An elongated season, no rest, and sheer bad luck have resulted in a litany of injuries in this most critical of positions, seeing van Dijk, Gomez and Matip ruled out for most of the season. Fabinho has done a stalwart job in moving back to fill the role but even he has suffered his injury woes, though he is expected to be back for the City game. 

Nevertheless, his absence from midfield has, in turn, severed the confident link between defence and midfield, while more defensive requirements for Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold have impacted their service and crosses to the front three, resulting in a strange impotence in many games by an attack often regarded as the best in the world.

An inability to break down sides that 'park the bus' with tight defensive line at Anfield has exposed Liverpool's gameplan and inability to handle subsequent counterattacking breaks as displayed by recent defeats to Burnley and Brighton. This must be a growing concern to Jurgen Klopp. But to his relief, Man City are not a such a side and Liverpool's record against the top six sides is far better than their record against the bottom six, offering a glimmer of hope. 

If they only played the biggest teams in the world each week everything would be fine for Liverpool.  

Pep Guardiola consoles  Sergio Aguero who has struggled to get back from injury and positive Covid tests.  Picture: Alex Livesey/PA Wire
Pep Guardiola consoles  Sergio Aguero who has struggled to get back from injury and positive Covid tests.  Picture: Alex Livesey/PA Wire

It was the same for Man City last season. 

Their high-flying attacking midfield and strikers were still terrifying opponents up and down the land Superbly supplied by the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva the attack of Gabriel Jesus, Sergio Aguero, Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden assisted by Raheem Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan packed in the goals sure enough. But their defensive frailties caught up with them as the season-long injury to talismanic centre back Aymeric Laporte drained them of confidence and points they should have comfortably won.

This season their defence has been shored-up by Ruben Dias and John Stone but their forwards have failed to sparkle the way they have in recent years. From a team littered with goalscorers, they have somehow struggled to find a frontman in form this season to hold his place and run up the scores.

Sergio Aguero has suffered a litany of setbacks in his attempts to return from knee problems and positive Covid teats that kept him out of the beginning of the campaign, while Jesus has just four league goals to his name in a frustrating season so far.

Manager Pep Guardiola has tried to rotate a variety of frontmen from Sterling, to Foden, Silva to Mahrez, without any of them connecting the way they did in previous years. In the absence of an out-and-out striker, Gundogan has stepped up with seven goals to his name but it does look like City missing a dead-eye striker has affected their early form.

Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Maybe it has to do with the supply they are getting. De Bruyne's long-term hamstring injury will see him out of the game for at least another month. And no side, not even a side as full of talent as Man City can afford the loss of a player with the talent and vision of Kevin De Bruyne.

Still, you would prefer to be in Guardiola position than Klopp's, and not just for their points advantage but that it's easier to see where the goals will eventually come from for City.  

So Sunday will again see England's two top sides in recent years do battle. Goals have not been in short supply historically when these sides meet. But a knockout punch may not be on the cards, whatever the result, as Liverpool now look like they have lost the impetus to properly defend their title.

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