Here we are, with the Premier League season winding down, with Liverpool atop the table with a chance to win the Premier League and one of the biggest games in recent club history coming up this weekend.
When Liverpool host Manchester City on Sunday, the winner—if there is one—will surely make a very good case for winning the title in the end. But of course, it's not quite that simple.
Of the two teams, there is certainly more pressure on Manchester City, as Manuel Pellegrini's team was favored to win the title ahead of the season. If we're being honest, not many of us thought, before the season, that Liverpool would be in this position.
Qualifying for the Champions League seemed a more realistic target—though even that felt like a big ask, considering Luis Suarez's suspension at the start of the season—and anything more was a bonus.
We know how they've done it, of course, and that's through unbelievable home form, an attack-minded philosophy with two players in Suarez and Daniel Sturridge atop the scoring charts, and careful management of what can only be called defensive deficiencies. Liverpool have allowed 40 goals, and that record shows that theirs is perhaps not the best back four in the league, but in some ways, this group does not get enough credit.
Key contributors like Daniel Agger have been injured, and in Mamadou Sakho, Liverpool have a new player who has had to adjust not only to a new team, but also a new league. Jon Flanagan, meanwhile, is young, but he has become an important part of the squad.
One can see why the back four hasn't always been great, but the way Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool have dealt with it has been exemplary.
In situations like his, a team simply has to cope—and one way to do that is by playing attacking football and winning games offensively. Credit has to go to Rodgers for adapting his approach, playing to his strengths and utilizing the strengths of the players he's had available.
It's easy to look at this game as the one to make one team's title challenge, but we have to remember that Chelsea also remain in the hunt and still have to play at Anfield later this month. Even though both teams will want to win, a draw will keep both in the race. But if you're Liverpool, I believe that in order to take the title, you'll have to beat either Chelsea or Man City.
Looking at the teams, I would imagine that most of the key players will be available and we might even see Sergio Aguero play. That would be a huge boost for City, but in order to have a chance against Pellegrini's side—as Jose Mourinho showed when Chelsea won at the Etihad in February—you have to win the battle of the midfield.
Playing against Yaya Toure and Fernandinho requires strength and composure, and here's where Rodgers will have to make some decisions. On one hand, he might want to play to his strengths, especially at Anfield, where Liverpool have been so successful.
Rodgers must be tempted to pick all of Suarez, Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho—who together have been among of the most potent, quick and creative front fours not just in England but perhaps in Europe this season. But with Toure and Fernandinho in the middle, City will be well-equipped to combat them, and at some point, the visitors' midfield will settle into their own rhythm.
This is where Rodgers, for me, has to look especially at Lucas Leiva.
If I were Rodgers, I would at least consider playing Lucas and Steven Gerrard together in the holding midfield—with Jordan Henderson in front of them—to counter Yaya and Fernandinho. That combination would give Liverpool strength, power and creativity in what will be a key area of the game.
But that only solves part of the problem. As many have found of late, there is also the threat of David Silva, who roams freely and drifts between the lines to devastating effect. The big decision will be who stays with him and how to limit his influence when he drifts into wide positions.
Leiva is capable of dealing with Silva centrally—and he should be the one to do so—but this will be a big test for Sturridge and his defensive responsibilities out wide. I think he's fully capable, and although helping defensively will hamper his movement forward, it will not hurt his offensive game if he does it in a smart way and picks up Silva early.
Playing with two holding midfielders would also allow either Lucas or Gerrard to slide over in case Sturridge is unable to cover defensively. And there would be a similar situation with Samir Nasri on the other side, where Sterling—although young—has shown the ability and willingness to play defensively and do it well.
This is going to be a big test for Sturridge and Sterling on both sides of the ball.
We know what they can do going forward, but in this match, they will not only have to deal with Silva and Nasri, but also two attack-minded full-backs in Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov. We'll see how willing and able they are to defend.
Further back, Glen Johnson is obviously experienced enough and Flanagan, although young, has shown he's capable as well. It's going to be a big ask, but he's certainly playing beyond his years.
That's one scenario, but another possibility is perhaps more simple—and that's playing to your strengths and letting the chips fall where they may. Rather than worrying about the strengths of Manchester City, Liverpool might try to force City to defend. The Reds have, after all, scored 90 goals this season and have often played breathtaking football at Anfield.
It's an approach Rodgers himself seems to favor. Speaking to reporters this week, as quoted by BBC Sport, the Liverpool boss said:
It was interesting to hear what Vincent Kompany said. We should have won there earlier this season, we should have won there last season and we should have beaten them at Anfield last season too.
The mentality here is to be fearless. We will respect the opposition, but it's about ourselves.
We give young players a chance and there's no pressure on them. I will take the pressure.
Our aim is to focus on the ball and the team. If we do that, it will take us a long way.
It would be a bold decision to start Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling and Coutinho together, but it would be right up Rodgers' alley. Doing so would announce to City in no uncertain terms that, if they want to escape Anfield with a result, they will have to defend.
And if all else fails, Liverpool still have the one magician no one has been able to deal with this season, and that's Suarez. The Uruguayan has been a revelation, he's been a breath of fresh air and he's been brilliant against everyone all season.
I believe that this approach can work because of what I mentioned earlier—that Liverpool have less pressure on them than City. Yes, Liverpool are in position to win it, and they would obviously like to take advantage of that, but their goal before the season started was to get in the Champions League and I believe that they've accomplished that emphatically.
Everything from here on is a bonus.
The worst thing Liverpool could do is get nervous and overthink their approach. They cannot let the occasion overwhelm them. As I've mentioned, this is just the first test, with Chelsea—who will be both more organized defensively and more cynical than City—being perhaps the tougher one in a couple of weeks' time.
Whichever approach you think is better, Liverpool will have to show some balance, and I'm not absolutely convinced that adding an extra holding midfielder will be better than going with the more attacking approach that got Liverpool here in the first place.
My gut feeling—and mind you, I'm usually on the conservative side—is that Liverpool will go for broke in a place that's going to be buzzing with passionate supporters. Some might see it as a naive approach to a degree, but City haven't faced many teams that can match Liverpool at their attacking best. City, for the most part, are the ones who dictate proceedings and overwhelm their opponents.
But this is one team—and one place—that can turn the tables on them.
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