31 Dec 2016

Liverpool and Man City prepare for battle

11:10 am on 31 December 2016

It is the perfect New Year treat: Liverpool versus Manchester City, two Premier League title challengers brimful of attacking, pass-and-move style and full of goals duelling at high pace at one of England's noisiest and most storied venues.

"If I wasn't sitting on the bench, I would buy a ticket!" boomed Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp with a smile.

In pursuit of Chelsea, who have been making serene, faultless progress, second-placed Liverpool and Pep Guardiola's City may feel this is a match they simply must win.

David Silva of Manchester City in action with Emre Can of Liverpool during the 2016 Capital One Cup Final.

David Silva of Manchester City in action with Emre Can of Liverpool during the 2016 Capital One Cup Final. Photo: Photosport

A draw would not be much use to either with the prospect of Chelsea, who should make it 13 wins in a row against Stoke City earlier in the morning (NZ Time), ending the year eight points clear of Liverpool and nine ahead of City.

It is not a slight on Antonio Conte's leaders to suggest Liverpool and City are, on their day, the most dazzling teams in the division but their problem remains that no-one can be confident when that day will be.

Will we see the Liverpool who eviscerated Stoke City 4-1 to chill the bones of a very cold-looking, flat-capped but suitably impressed Guardiola at Anfield on Wednesday?

Or the Liverpool who looked as if they couldn't defend to save their lives as they twice surrendered a two-goal lead to lose 4-3 at humble Bournemouth earlier in the month?

Likewise, will it be the crisp Guardiola machine that made his old Barcelona charges look lost at the Etihad in the Champions League? Or the hapless, strangely dispirited bunch who were crushed at struggling Leicester City recently.

"There are a lot of games to come but it is the most important game I can imagine against an outstanding, strong team," Klopp conceded.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"The advantage is that it's at Anfield. We must try to use this. It will be really difficult for both teams but I'm really looking forward to it. We love playing against the best.

"This is a very big game for both of us. Six clubs fight for four positions or one position. Each game is kind of a final."

For the moment, these sides remain two thrilling but inconsistent works in progress, the heaviest scorers in the league with 84 goals -- Liverpool 45, City 39 -- between them.

Yet a win on Saturday would mean a fourth league victory in succession for one of them, offering crucial momentum to propel them into the New Year.

It is also the renewal of a personal duel between two of the game's finest coaches who have brought their respectful rivalry from the Bundesliga where Klopp's Borussia Dortmund never could unseat Guardiola's magisterial Bayern Munich.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Who is the pressure on most? Well, Klopp has been an unqualified success on Merseyside, a motivational, magnetic man of the people who perfectly reflects Anfield's passion.

Guardiola, in contrast, is a cauldron of intensity, offering a surprising air of uncertainty and self-questioning that emerged following his stellar 10-win start to his Etihad reign.

He still does not seem wholly at ease with his frantic new world and this has the feel of another important step in his managerial development in England.

Klopp is a fan. "Maybe Johan Cryuff started it, but Guardiola perfected it at Barcelona," he said.

"He's a really influential manager with clear ideas. Fantastic career."

The good news for Guardiola is the return from suspension of Sergio Aguero at a time when Liverpool can ill afford to be without their injured Cameroon defender Joel Matip.

Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero

Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero Photo: Photosport

Yet City's own rearguard hardly radiates stability, especially if Liverpool's attacking, even without Philippe Coutinho, is at its kaleidoscopic best.

"The game is on the 31st," Klopp said after the Stoke win. "Whatever I say, we cannot win it now but maybe I could say a few things that could make it more difficult. It is probably best I shut my mouth!"

He is happy simply to let Anfield make the noise.

- Reuters