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Manchester City-Liverpool Preview
The cauldron that is Anfield burned Pep Guardiola and Manchester City in their Champions League quarterfinal tie last April, leaving the biggest blot on their historically unprecedented season of Premier League dominance.
The reigning champions return to Liverpool on Sunday, perhaps at full strength, as they look to exorcise the demons their closest pursuers have unleashed upon them in recent matchups.
"We won the last three games against City - twice in the Champions League and once in the league. After none of these games do you go into the dressing room and think, 'Now we've got it, now we know how to beat Manchester City," Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp told the club's official website.
"There is no real way; there isn't one thing you have to do so you can beat them. That's not there. You need a fantastic football team - which I have, thank God - with an outstanding character, ready for being really brave, ready for making mistakes in a very difficult game against an outstanding opponent."
Both teams have taken 19 of a possible 21 points through their first seven matches, with City leading on goal difference. Though third-place Chelsea have been surprising interlopers early, Guardiola's Citizens and Klopp's Reds have given every indication they will be the last two standing to lift the Premier League trophy come May.
And head-to-head, Liverpool have had the upper hand of late. The Reds dealt City three of their seven losses across all competitions last season, including a 4-3 victory at Anfield that was also Guardiola's first league loss. But the other two also stand out, as Liverpool advancing 5-1 on aggregate was a key part of their runners-up finish to Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
The first leg, also played at Anfield, was everything about the heritage Liverpool have as five-time European champions and everything Manchester City desire by claiming "Ol' Big Ears" for the first time to validate the estimated £1.3 billion in player signings since Sheikh Mansour bought the team a decade ago.
The white-hot intensity started before City even arrived on the grounds as their coach was pelted by Liverpool supporters en route. Guardiola then made two of the few - but most certainly his biggest since his arrival -- mistakes in tactics and lineups as he left ex-Liverpool attacking midfielder Raheem Sterling on the bench for deep-lying Ilkay Gundogan and started a still untested Aymeric Laporte at left back with Reds striker Mohamed Salah ready to pounce.
Liverpool blazed a trail of carnage through City's half as Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sadio Mane all scored in the first 31 minutes, and they protected the 3-0 scoreline. City were unable to overturn the deficit the following week at the Etihad, losing 2-1, and were left to take out their frustrations on the Premier League - their sole consolation reaching 100 points in their final match.
Since that meeting, Liverpool have only gotten stronger by taking a page from City's playbook and spending lavishly the last two seasons. Alisson has been worth every bit the £56 million from AS Roma, while the patience of waiting a year for midfielder Naby Keita has also paid dividends.
Virgil van Dijk has been a towering presence in central defence since his January arrival for £75 million, and while Klopp has brought along £44 million signing Fabinho slowly, all the pieces are in place for Liverpool to win their first title since 1990.
Just don't expect them to say they will continue dominating Manchester City while trying to do it.
"It's a new season," left back Andy Robertson said. "Last season we did very well against them. The two quarter-finals were very good, especially at home when we went 3-0 up. We did get one over on them last season but they ended up with the Premier League and that's what everyone strives for.
"They are the champions and they'll have a game plan. But hopefully our game plan is better on the day."
The plan will certainly need to be better than the one Wednesday, when Liverpool had a true clunker and lost 1-0 in Champions League play at Italian side Napoli. In contrast to the loss and draw, respectively, last week versus Chelsea in which both high-quality matches turned on moments of individual brilliance, Klopp's team were lacklustre throughout and failed to register a shot on target before conceding in the 90th minute.
The loss again raised concerns about Salah's form as the Egypt international has gone four matches without a goal in all competitions. He has only three goals in 10 matches, but with goals in all three wins over City last season, Klopp is optimistic the goals will flow soon.
"I am completely relaxed," the German said. "I didn't say Mo should relax because he has to work hard, but that's what he is doing. It is a completely normal situation, nothing to worry about and I am relaxed about it."
Liverpool have conceded just three goals in league play and have not been scored upon in Anfield since February, a stretch of 751 minutes.
City, though, may have all hands on deck to break that run as attacking midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and left back Benjamin Mendy practised this week. De Bruyne, who had 12 goals and 20 assists in all competitions last season, has been sidelined with a knee injury suffered in practice after City's season-opening victory. Mendy has missed the last six games with a knee injury after registering four assists in the first four matches.
Guardiola's team have won four on the bounce since their surprising home loss to Lyon to open Champions League group play, and they scrambled to rally past Hoffenheim 2-1 on Tuesday. David Silva bagged the winner on 87 minutes, but Sergio Aguero's equaliser in the eighth was also vital as City conceded almost right after kickoff.
Guardiola, though, thinks his defence will be key to maintaining their unbeaten start in the Premier League, which makes sense considering Salah, Mane and Roberto Firmino accounted for seven of the nine Liverpool goals last term.
"The big difference is how many times you lose the ball," the Spaniard noted to City's official website. "In Champions League games, they didn't lose the ball. These guys are so dangerous and connect between them - Mane and Salah love running behind and they do it really well.
"We have to defend, but not in the approach play because it's boring and we have to be ourselves. In this type of game, we must be ourselves. They are good and even though we are City and a good team, they also do many good things. To minimise those three players on Sunday, we have to attack and be as good as possible."
Aguero has a team-high six goals, with three coming in the last four matches. Both Sterling and Leroy Sane have used their pace to terrorise opposing defenders on the flanks, combining for a goal and six assists in that stretch. City lead the Premier League with 21 goals - six more than Liverpool -- but also have matched the Reds with just three conceded and carry a 330-minute shutout streak in league play dating back to their 2-1 victory over Newcastle United on Sept. 1.
Anfield, though, has been a house of horrours for Manchester City, who have failed to record a clean sheet there in the Premier League era. They have lost six on the bounce in all competitions and are winless in their last 15 league visits (0-4-11). City's lone victory in 23 trips to Liverpool (1-6-16) in the Premier League era was a 2-1 victory in 2003 when Nicolas Anelka completed a brace in the 94th minute.
Updated October 5, 2018