30 December 2016

Liverpool v Manchester City 12.31.16

12:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.02.06
1-1 City aet (n; League Cup) 02.28.06
4-1 Liverpool (a) 11.21.15
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.01.15

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-1 Stoke (h); 1-0 Everton (a); 3-0 Boro (a)
City: 3-0 Hull (a); 2-1 Arsenal (h); 2-0 Watford (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 8; Lallana 7; Coutinho, Firmino, Milner, Origi 5; Can 3; Lovren 2; Henderson, Matip, Sturridge, Wijnaldum 1
City: Agüero 10; Sterling 5; Iheanacho, Nolito 4; Gündogan 3; de Bruyne 2; Fernandinho, Kolarov, Sane, Silva, Zabaleta 1

Referee: Craig Pawson

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Klavan Milner
Lallana Henderson Wijnaldum
Mané Origi Firmino

It's only fitting that 2016 will go out with a bang, that this will be the last Premier League fixture in a truly trying year.

It's probably safest to guess the Liverpool that we've seen in the last three matches. It would be very unlike Jürgen Klopp to name the same XI in four consecutive matches – it'd be the first time that happened since taking over at the club – but that could be down to previous necessity through injury as much as personal preference and desired rotation of a potentially tired, heavy pressing side.

But there seem few options, despite Liverpool having played four days ago. Coutinho and Matip remain absent for another match or two. Can could come in for Wijnaldum, and/or Sturridge for Origi. I'd be very tempted to consider either or both of those changes, especially Sturridge, for both the "always play a player against his former side" axiom as well as his increased likelihood of tormenting City's center-backs and goalkeeper. But Klopp's almost always preferred Origi's team play, and that's it for potential changes unless we see a different Liverpool formation for the first time this season. The other nine Liverpool starters are fairly certain.

This XI has been less potent, despite eight goals in three consecutive wins, although maybe "less prolific" is a better way to phrase it; we've seen goals, just not as many shots or big chances as we've become accustomed to. But this XI has been better defensively, conceding just once in three games, allowing a combined 20 shots, no more than eight in one match.

It's a good time to be more defensively secure.

If you squint hard enough, looking at Manchester City is almost a fun house mirror version of Liverpool. There are some very different differences, but more than a few striking similarities.

Two title contenders, sitting one point apart in the table. Two relatively young, high-profile, well-regarded, hipster darling managers who'll resume a rivalry that started in the Bundesliga; Klopp's Dortmund won four meetings, Guardiola's Bayern won four meetings. These are league's two top-scorers (well, City are joint-second with Arsenal), capable of getting goals in an instant from a variety of ways, but who both remain prone to defensive hilarity and unnecessary concessions. Party at the front, very different sort of party at the back.

Like Liverpool, City hit a bit of a stutter in the league earlier this month, with two-goal losses to both Chelsea and Leicester, but followed it with three consecutive wins. Like Liverpool, two relatively easy wins against sides they should be beating – Watford and Hull – then a harder-fought victory over a closer competitor.

And they've done it while missing key players. Kompany, Gündogan, and Stones are out injured, the former two for long-term. Fernandinho returned from a three-match suspension on Monday, while Agüero will come back from a four-game ban tomorrow.

It's a bit tougher to guess City's XI than Liverpool's. City's depth, especially in attack – more specifically, the ability to purchase said depth – remains one of the biggest differences between the sides. Guardiola's used something like five different starting formations so far this season, sometimes multiples in a single match, but "formation" means a lot less when Pep Guardiola's involved.

Let's go with what we've seen lately coupled with the return of Agüero. A 4-2-3-1 that looks both 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1 at times. Bravo; Zabaleta, Otamendi, Kolarov, Clichy; Fernandinho, Fernando; Sterling, Silva, de Bruyne; Agüero. That seems about right. It'll be a back four – City's defense has looked far better when that's the case – but City have the option of using Nolito, Sane, Navas, or Iheanacho in attack; Toure in midfield; and Sagna in defense.

Liverpool have done well against City in recent meetings: two thorough victories in the league last season, along with a narrow penalty shoot-out loss in the League Cup. Liverpool last lost to Manchester City at Anfield in May 2003, with nine wins and five draws since. Liverpool have been better against the bigger sides, both this season and last, since Klopp became manager; in the 15 matches against the rest of the current top six (in all competitions), Liverpool's the only loss in 90 minutes was against Manchester United nearly a year ago.

But Liverpool haven't yet faced this version of Manchester City, for all its faults. Liverpool haven't faced Pep Guardiola's Manchester City: swarming and vicious and hilarious, all as Liverpool are won't to do. Liverpool haven't faced Manchester City as true Premiership rivals – at least in the league, at least since 2013-14 – one point apart in an unbelievably tight top of the table.

Past is no precedent. As with everything so far this season, in every match, Liverpool will have to earn it all over again.

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