The biggest match of the Barclays Premier League gameweek takes place at the Etihad between Manchester City and Liverpool FC on Saturday, and several key individual battles on the pitch could play a major role in determining the outcome of the game .
Manchester City host Liverpool FC at the Etihad, hoping to consolidate their position at the top of the table and reaffirm their title credentials after the long international break. Although there will be a few absentees for Manuel Pellegrini’s side — most notably captain Vincent Kompany and the silky David Silva — the Citizens have enough depth in their squad to impose themselves in the match and get a positive result in front of their home fans.
Meanwhile, JA?rgen Klopp will face his first test against a top-four side in the league, and the win at Stamford Bridge against Jos Mourinho’s Chelsea FC will give the Reds plenty of confidence going into this game.
Big games like these are never short of their sub-plots, and Saturday will see the return to the Etihad of James Milner — the consummate professional, a player always well-liked by the City supporters. Young winger Raheem Sterling will also face his former side for the first time since switching to the light blue of Manchester City, but the acrimonious nature of his departure means that the Reds’ supporters will be far less forgiving every time he gets on the ball.
It is often the tiniest details that make the difference in top-level games such as this, and key individual battles on the pitch can often be important enough to determine the outcome of the game. Here are five key battles that will play a big role in deciding the outcome.
1. Sergio AgA?ero v Dejan Lovren/Martin Skrtel
The Argentine striker is likely to be fit enough to start the game, and will be relishing the prospect of coming up against the defensively suspect Dejan Lovren. AgA?ero will try and attach himself to the Croatian rather than the more solid Martin Skrtel, and could cause Lovren no end of trouble with his trickery and movement in the box.
Kevin De Bruyne could start from the right wing, and has excellent crossing ability, while the Argentine striker has the tendency to escape the attention of the centre-backs and free himself in the penalty area to connect with incoming crosses. The Liverpool FC defensive duo will have to be extremely alert at all times, and get as tight to AgA?ero as possible, provided he doesn’t have much space to run into in behind the defence.
Jamie Carragher’s excellent analysis of the City top-scorer’s performance against Chelsea FC highlighted his key strengths, and although it is obvious that the Reds’ defence have to try and deny him time and space on the ball, the task is easier said than done. If the Argentine is allowed to run riot however, he is capable of winning the game by himself.
2. Raheem Sterling v Nathaniel Clyne
Liverpool FC right-back Nathaniel Clyne will come up against a very familiar face in Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling, and will have the important task of stopping his international team-mate at the Etihad on Saturday.
Sterling’s strength is of course his pace, but he has also improved in terms of his passing, and now tends to drop off the opposition defence to pick up the ball and play passes to the likes of left full-back Aleksandar Kolarov making runs into the penalty area. Clyne will have to be extremely careful with his decision-making in terms of whether or not he should follow Sterling into midfield, as City have created numerous chances through the left flank because of Kolarov being given space to cross the ball.
The England right-back will also have to be very careful to pick his moments to venture forward, given Sterling is lightning quick and could cause a lot of damage on the counter-attack. The 20-year-old has also been making diagonal runs into the penalty area between right-back and centre-back — most notable in the games against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane and Sevilla in the Champions League — and Clyne will have to be alert enough to follow him and intercept any attempted through balls.
3. James Milner v Aleksandar Kolarov
James Milner will face his former side playing from the right of a midfield three, and will need to play an important role in stifling the marauding Kolarov, who has been a constant danger this season from the left wing.
Milner played a similar role against Chelsea FC at Stamford Bridge, and although he failed to make a difference going forward, his presence was extremely crucial in nullifying the threat of Oscar and Eden Hazard, who was increasingly forced towards the centre in search of the ball. City are likely to dominate the game, and as such, Kolarov is likely to see plenty of the ball. It will fall upon the former City man to help his right-back in dealing with the considerable threat of Kolarov and Sterling.
For his part, Kolarov will also have to be wary of the attacking threat of Milner and England international Adam Lallana. The former will look to play Lallana in behind the defence, play in Clyne making an overlapping run, or even make runs himself into the penalty area. The absence of Kompany is a big blow to City, and Kolarov will have a big role to play in organising the defence, considering he is the longest-serving member of the back four.
4. Philippe Coutinho v Fernando/Fernandinho
The Brazilian attacking midfielder is Liverpool FC’s biggest threat going forward, and seems to have a penchant for scoring against Manchester City. Although his creativity is a big threat that will require fellow country-men Fernando and Fernandinho to close him down as soon as possible, Coutinho’s ability to score goals from just outside the box is almost unique to the Premier League.
His goals at Stamford Bridge reflect that, but he has also hurt City in the same fashion on more than one occasion in the past. His brilliant goal at Anfield earlier this year against the same opponents highlights the importance of denying him the space and time to shoot, and defensive midfielders Fernando and Fernandinho will be tasked with picking him up as he drifts between the defence and midfield in search of the ball.
City have never kept a clean sheet when Kompany has not played this season, but if Fernando and/or Fernandinho are able to keep Coutinho quiet, that will go a long way towards nullifying the Reds’ attacking threat.
5. Christian Benteke v Eliaquim Mangala/NicolA?s Otamendi
Liverpool FC will likely start Belgian Christian Benteke up front, and he is the type of player that would relish a physical challenge that the likes of Mangala and Otamendi are likely to provide him. His aerial threat will be an obvious consideration for the Manchester City defence, but the former Aston Villa striker has shown he is also quite handy with the ball at his feet.
His job will be to win balls in the air and try and lay it off for teammates running beyond him, but if Mangala and Otamendi are able to consistently win the aerial duel with the big Belgian, his threat will be largely nullified.
Given Manchester City are likely to dominate possession, Klopp’s men will not have the opportunity too often to play the ball to the Belgian’s feet. As such, his hold up play on Saturday will be a huge factor in determining the success Liverpool FC have going forward.
This fixture has not disappointed in recent seasons, and there is nothing to suggest that it will this time around. An exciting 90 minutes lie in store for the millions of Premier League fans around the globe.