Scott Groom details the three battles he believes will prove to be key during what will be a fiercely contested clash against Manchester City on Thursday evening.
It’s being billed as the game of the season, and it’s easy to see why. Tomorrow night, Jürgen Klopp takes his table-topping Liverpool side to The Etihad to face title challengers Manchester City in what will be a pivotal match in this season’s title race.
The Reds currently sit seven points clear of the chasing Citizens, and a win for Klopp’s men would see them stretch that lead to an imposing 10 point gap and put them in a commanding position to go on to claim their first Premier League title and first league championship since the 1989-1990 season.
However, Guardiola will not let his City side gift Liverpool three points as they look to reduce the deficit between the teams, and he will be desperate to see his side defend their Premier League crown.
It will be an almighty tussle between the two finest teams in English football, and on current form and with recent meetings between the two in mind, it should be an all-time classic in Manchester.
While both teams will need to be on top of their games across the field, here are three pivotal areas which could see the game swing in either Liverpool or Manchester City’s favour.
Virgil van Dijk vs Sergio Aguero
This will be quite the duel as one of the world’s best strikers comes up against arguably the world’s best defender. There is no doubting the talents of both Aguero and van Dijk, so seeing them come up against each other should be a great spectacle.
Liverpool fans know all too well how much Virgil has improved not just Liverpool’s defence, but their entire team and its confidence and composure. He is looking to be a bargain, even though Southampton received £75 million for his services.
With van Dijk at the heart of Liverpool’s defence this season, the Reds have conceded only eight Premier League goals and have looked impenetrable at times.
His prowess seems to know no bounds, with effortless pace, power, poise and ability in every aspect of his game – all of which he will need to draw on to keep Aguero at bay.
The Argentinian has scored six goals in his 13 league appearances against Liverpool down the years, and has always proved a handful with his speed and strength, as well as his clinical eye for goal.
Although City have goalscorers all over the pitch, they will be seriously weakened if van Dijk can stifle Aguero for 90 minutes, as he is also a very important player in other aspects of City’s attacking play.
Fabinho vs Fernandinho
The battle of the Brazilians in the middle of the park could be another pivotal part as to how this game pans out.
Much has been written about City’s form without Fernandinho in their recent losses to Leicester and Crystal Palace, with their number 25 providing a much-needed shield for the defence and helping to link attack and defence with seeming ease.
It may not be such a massive coincidence then, that City returned to winning ways against Southampton when he was available for selection again in their last fixture.
On Thursday, he will go toe-to-toe with the man who will no doubt be vying for his place in the Brazil national side in Fabinho.
After his move from Monaco, Liverpool’s number three took a little while to settle in at Anfield, but now that he has, he has really started to stamp his authority on the side. He has proved a breath of fresh air to Klopp and Liverpool, providing a perfect blend of defensive solidity and attacking know-how, perfectly epitomised by his performance against Manchester United.
Kopites have been delighted with his work ethic, passing ability and love for a good tackle or dispossession of his opponents, and that’s not without mentioning his constant desire to carry the ball forwards when he is in possession.
Even though he is more than capable of influencing the game going forward, it’s likely that he may have to be more defensively focused at The Etihad, with City likely to try to bring the game to Liverpool and put them under a lot of pressure.
It will then fall on his shoulders to restrict the influence that his fellow Brazilian has on the game. If he allows Fernandinho the time and space to start picking up the ball in the pockets in the middle of the pitch, allowing him to pick out teammates in attacking positions or drive at the Reds’ defence, he will be causing big problems.
Fabinho will need to be on his case from minute one because if his influence is felt on the game, it could prove costly for Liverpool.
Mohamed Salah vs Aymeric Laporte
There’s a degree of history to this one. Salah absolutely terrorised Laporte when he came up against the Egyptian King in the Champions League quarter-final at Anfield last season, and the Frenchman will likely still be having nightmares about that night.
Granted, Laporte was being played slightly out of position, but Salah still taught him a painful lesson as Liverpool won 3-0 on the night, all but sealing a place in the semi-final.
And Salah is once again in imperious form as the two sides come together again, and will no doubt be making the City defence sweat at the prospect of facing him once more.
There’s no real method as to how to stop Mohamed Salah when he’s flying high, so Laporte, along with the rest of the City defence will have a tough evening on their hands.
Salah is crucial to Liverpool’s hopes this season, so if Laporte can restrict him somewhat, it will affect Liverpool’s chances of walking away from Manchester with three points in the bag.
However, that’s easier said than done. Like Aguero at the other end, Salah is strong, clever, makes brilliant runs and is clinical in front of goal, so City will be looking to keep him under wraps for 90 minutes.
But if Salah spots a chink in the City armour, he will exploit it and continue to do so for the duration and cause devastating problems.
One thing is for sure, no matter who comes out on top in their individual battles, it’s set to be one heck of a game, with whoever comes away with three points (if anyone!) having a large slice of momentum as the title race really heats up the cold winter months.