MANCHESTER City at home on New Year’s Eve. What were they thinking.
And yet. And yet, it also seems kind of perfect. The collision that could define a season. The clash of the league’s two best footballing titans. On the cusp of a year. It’s a “see you on the other side” moment, because life afterwards seems not just to belong to a different year but to another universe. Daren’t think of how good victory might feel. Don’t contemplate the agony of defeat.
I want to live and savour every moment up until 5.30pm on Saturday December 31, 2016. All the preamble, the pub conversations, the media babble. Then, I’d like to be taken under, put to sleep, to be awoken only after the game. The anxiety which actually watching events unfold will bring seems beyond imagination.
You wonder how players deal with contests of this magnitude. I suppose the fact that they have some control over events gives them greater peace of mind. For me, it will feel like being made to drive a car down the M6 with hands cuffed behind my back. All before me, but no way of influencing events. Just hoping that the gods are smiling.
Let’s count the way the stakes are raised.
We look to be the best version of Liverpool FC in a generation or two. That side of 2013-14 was frighteningly good at times, but coming into the Christmas period it still had not proven itself good enough to be a title winner. There had been some fantastic performances to that point but also real inconsistency and the sense that against the biggest sides we might be found wanting.
We were also top at Christmas in 2008, coming into 2009. Rafa Benitez’s team was another fine Liverpool outfit, but again it didn’t look stronger than a Manchester United side that featured Cristiano Ronaldo in attack and could afford to bench Carlos Tevez.
40 – This season is Liverpool's best start to a Premier League season. Momentum.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 30, 2016
The current side do trail leaders Chelsea by six points, and there’s no arguing with their invincible streak of 12 consecutive wins. It’s the kind of run that title-winners put in.
There’s a sense, however, that while Chelsea are superbly organised and are hugely mentally resolute, they are not the best football team in the division.
They were outplayed by Manchester City a few weeks ago. They looked to be heading for a comprehensive defeat, and then football fate lent them a hand. Kevin De Bruyne’s effort striking the crossbar rather than bulging the roof of the net. From point-blank range. It was as open a goal as that player will ever be faced with in his professional life. Chelsea escaped facing an insurmountable 2-0 deficit, and then seized their moment.
Chelsea’s strength for most of the season has been in their ability to seize moments. A few examples aside, they are no wrecking ball of a team.
Five of their last seven games have been won by a single goal. They may be passing tests by the week, but they have yet to really show against the very best. Liverpool beat them on their own ground. Manchester City were better than them. Arsenal thrashed them.
My contention is that this meeting between Liverpool Reds and Manchester Blues is the pivotal match-up of this campaign to date. These are the best two sides. Pep Guardiola’s City are still prone to inconsistency, not just from one week to another but within games themselves. However, when his players synchronise, they are hard to live with. Just ask Chelsea. Ask Arsenal. Ask Barcelona.
Liverpool have looked better than City more often than the reverse. Liverpool went to Arsenal and established a 4-1 lead. No-one does that to them on their own patch. Liverpool went to Chelsea and took a two-goal lead. Liverpool have thrashed teams week in, week out at Anfield.
Even in dropping points (against Burnley, Tottenham, Manchester United, Southampton, Bournemouth and West Ham) the Reds have looked totally dominant. In three of those six games Liverpool were leading and in control. It’s hard to escape the feeling that only the Reds themselves can really beat these Reds.
The gap between City and Liverpool, despite seasons that have had very different feels, is only one point. City have played more home games, though. City have not yet had to travel to Stamford Bridge or the Emirates. Liverpool’s slender advantage may be deceptively so. Another stake raiser for Saturday.
Liverpool have talked and walked big all season, but it has been a while since they have been tested against the very best. Back in the autumn Liverpool were playing title contenders week after week. They haven’t faced one now since October 17, when Manchester United came to Anfield.
City were poor in victory over Hull just after Christmas. The 3-0 scoreline flattered them against plucky but weak opposition. Sergio Aguero didn’t play then and hasn’t played for a month. He will be back to front for City tomorrow. Liverpool will hope his time spent kicking his heels has left him ring-rusty. Experience, though, suggests that Aguero is a player very quick to pick up dropped threads.
That Joel Matip — Liverpool’s star defender this season — will again be absent with an ankle injury doesn’t help the Reds’ cause.
While City will more or less be at full strength, Liverpool again must make do without Phil Coutinho. Jürgen Klopp deems him not quite ready to rejoin the main group yet. Given Phil’s aptitude for scoring against City, it can only psychologically aid them to know that he will not be playing.
So some of the dices look already loaded against Liverpool. Except a key one. This is at Anfield. Anfield on a Saturday night. On New Year’s Eve. The city will be rocking. Anfield will be rolling. Our crowd are ready to be brought to fever pitch. The dramatic win at Goodison took things up a level. The recovery and then demolition of Stoke ratcheted it up some more. Manchester City have it in them to silence the stadium, but they will need to be at their very best to do so.
The Mighty Reds to floor the big Blues: Mignolet; Clyne, Lovren, Klavan, Milner; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Lallana; Firmino, Mane, Origi.
Kick-off: 5.30pm (Live on BT Sport 1).
Last season: Liverpool 3 Manchester City 0
Referee: Craig Pawson
Odds: Liverpool 7-5, Draw 13-5, Manchester City 85-40.