It is being billed as the clash which will decide the outcome of the 2013-14 Premier League season. It is an assumption that may be unfair on fellow challengers Chelsea, but it is easy to feel that the outcome of Liverpool vs. Manchester City will somehow be crucial come 11 May.
Brendan Rodgers' Reds top the league after an astonishing run of nine straight league wins that has seen them shoot up into title contention. Liverpool are scoring goals with ease and look by far the most confident of the three contenders for the throne. Manchester City, though, are no ordinary opponent.
Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers named Barclays Manager of Month, as Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez share player award. http://t.co/juf5d6O8Rb— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) April 11, 2014
Indeed, on paper, Manuel Pellegrini's side are the obvious choice for the title. Should they win their games in hand, they would move ahead of the Reds from their current third position and they have a depth of squad that is the envy of all others in the division.
Defeat for either side would be a hammer blow to their title hopes. City cannot afford to allow Liverpool to move seven points ahead with just four games remaining. Should they emerge victorious, meanwhile, they would have two extra games to make up just a one-point lead.
How, then, will the biggest game of both teams' seasons be settled?
Defence Key to Success
The simple answer, as so often in big games, is that defence will hold the key. Neither side has the strongest defensive unit in the league and both can be vulnerable when put under pressure. Taking advantage of those vulnerabilities will be key to the tie.
The first big question to answer is: How will Liverpool set up for the clash? Over the course of the season, they have frequently switched between a midfield diamond and a 4-3-3 setup. Rodgers has been excellent at adapting his system for the opponent and it is difficult to imagine him attempting anything other than a 4-3-3 on this occasion.
The presence of both Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson in midfield, ahead of captain Steven Gerrard, adds core stability to the side while leaving the famed attacking trio of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling to attack.
The downside to the change is that Liverpool would lose the guile of Philippe Coutinho. However, given the power of their opponents' midfield, it is a sacrifice that must be made if success is to be achieved.
Rodgers has moved away from his possession-based dogma this season, with Liverpool now playing a much faster game based on attacking movement and transitional play.
It is a strength that could unsettle Manchester City.
Fast Transitions Key to Liverpool Success
City's defensive unit, likely Vincent Kompany and Martin Demichelis, is not the quickest. They also have full-backs who like to push forward at any opportunity and a defensive midfield duo of Fernandinho and Yaya Toure who are adventurous themselves.
Fernandinho, to his great credit, has adapted well into a new deeper role. He has, in general, been very disciplined in covering ahead of his defence this campaign. However, Toure is often slow to retreat from his attacking bursts and there could be gaps for the Reds to exploit.
Rodgers will have emphasised to his side that City are vulnerable on the break. Attack them with speed down the side of either centre-back and there could be opportunities to score. They can be left exposed and Demichelis, in particular, lacks the pace to cover.
Given the Reds' own lightening-fast attack, they will fancy their chances of success in this area. The role of Fernandinho will be key for City, while they may also look to station David Silva close to Steven Gerrard throughout to prevent the Reds' out ball.
They can only do so much, though. Liverpool will create opportunities where their forwards will find themselves man-for-man with City's defenders and will be confident of exploiting such chances.
Jordan Henderson, in particular, will have an important role in arriving late from midfield to add an extra dynamic to the offensive setup. If he is not tracked, he can be a threat—even if goalscoring is an area of his game that can still be greatly improved. He has, though, been unlucky on several occasions not to add to his tally of four goals this campaign.
If that is all encouraging for the Reds, analysis of their own defensive failings wont be. Liverpool have scored an incredible 90 goals this campaign, but have also conceded 40 of their own. Worryingly, City are the only side who come close to their attacking total.
City to Target Reds' Own Creaking Defence
Despite winning their past nine league fixtures, Liverpool have managed to ship 11 goals over that same time period. Both Swansea and Cardiff put three past the Reds in defeat and, while there's an argument that they step up their performance for bigger fixtures, it is a worrying trend.
City will look at the Reds' defence, though, and be confident of creating goalscoring opportunities over the course of the 90 minutes.
Per Whoscored, Stoke are the only side in the top half of the Premier League who allow their opponents more shooting chances than the Reds. Conversely, no side creates more chances per game than their opponents, City. That, in itself, is cause for concern.
Liverpool's defensive issues start from the very back, with goalkeeper Simon Mignolet having shown himself susceptible when attempting to claim high balls this campaign. City are one of the best in the league at attacking both flanks and will be aware that the Belgian is unlikely to command his area with much authority if they can get men attacking the ball in numbers.
Success in wide areas is also something that they will consider to be an area they can unsettle Liverpool. Since returning from injury, the occasionally fallible Glen Johnson has been in excellent form. On the left, though, the limitations of Jon Flanagan's play have begun to show.
Over recent fixtures, the England youth international has been poor. Against Manchester United, he could have seen red. Cardiff, meanwhile, exploited his flank, while he was disappointing once more against West Ham last weekend against a marauding Mohamed Diame.
In Jesus Navas, also, City have perhaps the best right winger in the league. Up against right-footed Flanagan, he will fancy his chances of success when attempting to beat his man on the outside.
With Pablo Zabaleta known for his overlapping runs and Liverpool potentially playing a narrow midfield system, it could be a difficult afternoon for Flanagan if City can establish some control on the game.
Skrtel rugby tackles people in the box every single game and never ever gets done for it— James Porteous (@JamesPorteous) January 12, 2014
Centrally, bar a propensity to grapple opponents from corners, Martin Skrtel has been in fine form recently and will be joined by either Daniel Agger or Mamadou Sakho. Whichever combination starts, will be confident of dealing with the aerial threat of Edin Dzeko at the point of the attack, but may find Sergio Aguero a tougher proposition.
Aguero, per the Telegraph's Mark Ogden, will return from a month-long absence on Sunday to bolster the City forward line. How his hamstring holds up, with Aguero usually City's most vertical attacking threat, could be key to the tie.
Individual Battles Key to the Tie
As ever in football's biggest clashes, individual successes could settle the overall result.
Can Suarez exploit Demichelis' lack of pace? Will Jesus Navas exploit any weakness Liverpool have on their left flank? Can Henderson exploit any space left by Yaya Toure? All are potentially key issues in determining the outcome of Sunday's tie.
With both side's league positions suggesting they are well balanced and perfectly capable of beating any other team in the division, the performances of key individuals could well settle the encounter.
Both Rodgers and Pellegrini are renowned for their tactical variety, changing systems depending on the forthcoming opponent. Should either spring a surprise ahead of Sunday's game, it would be no shock to fans of either side.
In theory, assuming our predictions are correct, Liverpool will have an overload in midfield with their three men up against what is nominally a two-man City central midfield partnership.
Rodgers will hope, then, to overrun City in those areas but it will be far from easy. The counterbalance to that equation is that City will have extra men in wide areas and the ability to isolate Liverpool defenders one-on-one. Pre-match, there are some intriguing dynamics to consider.
With Chelsea playing later on Sunday afternoon, neither side will want to lose momentum heading into the final few games of the campaign. Indeed, a draw would play into the hands of Jose Mourinho and his side.
Lose, though, and it will be very difficult to revive a title challenge. There are simply not enough games remaining. For both managers, it is 90 minutes that could have a great impact on their respective careers.