Sunday’s match feels like a game that could define Liverpool’s whole season. Somehow the Reds have to recreate a vibe that saw Manchester City twice reduced to an incoherent rabble at Anfield earlier this year. There is no question that Jurgen Klopp’s team established a psychological supremacy over Pep Guardiola’s men with home and away wins in the Champions League and in the equivalent Premier League fixture back in January.
Twice City turned Liverpool round at the toss, inviting Liverpool to attack the Kop in the first half hoping to weather the initial storm and settle gradually into their assured passing rhythms. The Reds made a nonsense of such a timid, reactionary approach and in each game took an early lead to set an unrelenting tempo on the pitch and in the stands.
In the European quarter-final, a three goal burst had City defenders reeling, incapable of retaining possession and mentally disintegrating in front of a baying Liverpool mob. The tone for that night and the seeds of Manchester doubt had been sown earlier in the evening when their team bus had been surrounded by the thousands lining the streets and there was a sense City were beaten before kick-off.
So, a vibrant, aggressive Anfield should come as no surprise this time. If Guardiola is worth his salt as a leader as well as a strategist his men will be better prepared and Liverpool can’t assume they will be so meek again.
Raheem Sterling in particular – a pariah since his acrimonious departure – is always a target but should be mature enough by now to deliver a performance that could leave us with taunts stuck in our throats. Andy Robertson, who is at his best on these high-octane occasions, will relish the task of adding to Sterling’s Anfield woes.
In terms of the Premier League title this is a fixture Liverpool can’t afford to lose; to cede a points advantage to City after such an assured start would be hugely deflating. However, with City capable of swatting aside the fodder that makes up two thirds of this division a victory is crucial. So far, only Wolves have been able to deny the title favourites all three points, so Klopp’s charges have the opportunity to strike a psychological blow and see how City react to being behind the eight ball as the season enters the slog of winter.
The Reds have to bounce back after a truly anaemic showing in Naples. Liverpool looked leggy, bereft of inspiration in midfield and short of penetration up front, even before Lorenzo Insigne’s late winner. Despite an unbeaten domestic start a feeling persists that the Reds have yet to click.
With the front three of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane struggling to reproduce last season’s cut and thrust, the lack of creative spark in midfield suddenly looks a conundrum Klopp has to solve quickly. For all of James Milner’s grit and graft, Jordan Henderson’s endless shuttles and Gini Wijnaldum’s ability to recycle possession effectively, too much onus is being placed on the full-backs to augment the attack. Despite last week’s creditable draw at Chelsea, a point was only salvaged by Daniel Sturridge’s late stroke of genius.
Klopp, so far, hasn’t quite committed to the notion of squad rotation. There are still doubts about the extent of Sturridge’s influence from the start, Naby Keita has yet to find the dynamic form that was intended to carry a threat through the middle and Fabinho – short of games and Premier League nous – isn’t yet a plausible option to challenge for a place. Xherdan Shaqiri represents the most likely presence to knit together a midfield and attack which are currently functioning as separate units.
Yes, it’s early days. Yes, Liverpool sit joint top of the league but Sunday still feels like a day for Liverpool to cast off their recent lethargy. The Reds must play on City’s anxieties; the visitors haven’t won at Anfield since 2003.
A typically chaotic affair suits Liverpool best with spaces opening up to exploit Guardiola’s high defensive line and at the same time negate City’s potent attacking threat. The last thing Liverpool fans want to see is City being allowed to slow the tempo, dominate possession and endure the purgatory of David Silva on ball, slippery Leroy Sane in space down the left and the lethal Sergio Aguero in shooting positions.
All is set fair for a gripping contest; one which in equal measure brings fear and expectation for supporters. The veins will be pumping by 4.30 on Sunday as we go head-to-head with the side who, despite their Anfield complex, present the biggest obstacle in our pursuit of the Holy Grail.
*all odds are subject to change