This Sunday, Liverpool and Manchester City face off at Anfield in a match that might very well decide the Premier League title. Steven Gerrard disagreed with this notion, as he told Sky Sports' Rob Parrish, but there's no beating around the bush here.
A win for Manchester City would put them within a single point of the current league leaders with two games still in hand. A victory for the Reds would see them seven points clear, meaning those two added fixtures wouldn't be enough to see the title balance shifted. Chelsea still lie in wait, hoping to pounce on any slips from these two.
This is a momentous clash with major ramifications for the last month of the season. These two sides have handled most of their opposition this year with ease, but this time they come together to see who can truly be considered the title favorite.
Back in December, City came away 2-1 victors over Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium in a pretty evenly fought battle. Philippe Coutinho opened the scoring midway through the first half before Vincent Kompany and Alvaro Negredo added first-half goals to set the final scoreline.
Will this weekend's matchup have a similar outcome? There are a lot of factors in play that will decide that. Let's have a look at a few of them.
Midfield battle: Toure/Fernandinho vs. Gerrard/Henderson/Coutinho
As much as the attacking players take a lot of the plaudits in this matchup—with names like Suarez, Aguero, Sturridge and Negredo, it's hard not to—it's the battle in midfield that will be most impactful.
Yaya Toure has perhaps been the most dominant Premier League player not named Luis Suarez this season, his physicality, work rate and striking ability paying dividends for City. His 18 league goals are third overall behind Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, a remarkable feat for a midfielder.
More importantly, though, his budding partnership with summer signing Fernandinho has been a key factor in powering City's title charge. The Brazilian stays more reserved as his partner charges forward and is able to break up play effectively as well as distribute, with WhoScored.com noting his three tackles per game and 88 percent passing rate.
The two-headed midfield engine is a huge part of the well-oiled City machine, helping supply the likes of David Silva, Samir Nasri and the strikers with scoring opportunities. It's been hard to stop so far, but Liverpool boast a strong midfield of their own.
Gerrard, Liverpool's captain and rock in the middle, has also hit double digits in goals, though 10 of his 13 markers this season have been spot-kicks. Still, his influence can be felt in most games where his wisdom and passing eye from a more withdrawn position sets the spark for the "SAS" partnership (Suarez and Sturridge).
Likely playing alongside the England skipper will be Coutinho and Jordan Henderson, who have both had solid seasons in their own right. The young Brazilian brings the flair, deft touch and incision, while Henderson brings an industrious mentality and a solid eye of his own.
As fantastic as this trio have been, how well will they fare against the physicality that Toure and Fernandinho bring? Last time out, we saw Lucas and Joe Allen in midfield with Gerrard out injured, which at least stemmed the tide somewhat.
At Anfield, though, expect the more attack-minded formation. As such, the Ivorian dynamo may have an invitation to charge on to help lead quick counters. With the more forward players willing and able to join him, we could see City have a good amount of attacking impetus; whether that impetus results in goals is the big question.
Goals galore? SAS vs. City's central defense
It's hard to say something that hasn't already been said about the deadly Suarez-Sturridge powerhouse. The two strikers have amassed 49 league goals between them, more than 13 of the 19 other Premier League sides. That's what you call being in form.
They're a tough pair to keep tabs on. They both move so well, creating space for themselves to be found by their midfielders and even one another—Suarez leads the league with 11 assists, with Sturridge adding seven of his own.
If Liverpool's midfield can breach Toure and Fernandinho, expect Kompany be put to the test early and often. The City skipper has put in performance after tireless performance this season, largely due to the inconsistency with his central-defensive partners.
Matija Nastasic has spent much of the campaign on the injury list, though he is on the road to recovery as Pellegrini told the club's website over the weekend. Joleon Lescott is a decent option but has been found out on more than one occasion.
Martin Demichelis has gotten a lot of work under his former boss at Malaga and has had mixed results to say the least. His shoddy performance at Barcelona certainly sticks in the minds of fans and critics everywhere, but it hasn't been all bad.
Indeed, WhoScored rated him the best player in City's 5-0 demolition of Fulham, where he notched a (tap-in) goal and added five tackles, three interceptions and a whopping 11 clearances. But then, that was Fulham. Cauley Woodrow and Alex Kacaniklic are not Suarez and Sturridge.
The Argentine doesn't quite have the pace to keep up with Liverpool's dynamic duo, leaving Kompany and the full-backs to hold down the fort. One killer ball could unlock the fort, meaning Joe Hart's going to need to step up his game an extra notch.
Battle on the boards: The tactics
It's hard to imagine seeing anything different from Brendan Rodgers' 4-3-3 against the 4-2-3-1 of Pellegrini. What might change from expectation is which players occupy those positions.
Up top, Sergio Aguero is a possibility to return from injury at just the right time for Manchester City. With Alvaro Negredo struggling to find his goalscoring form of late, it would not be a shock at all to see El Kun lead the line rather than Negredo or Edin Dzeko.
It might also be possible that we see one of those two lead the line with the Argentine striker in behind them. This would leave Silva and Nasri or Jesus Navas to occupy wider positions, assuming the general norm prevails. Should Pellegrini opt for just one true striker, Nasri will likely play in the hole, with Silva wide-left and either Navas or James Milner opposite him.
How would Liverpool's defense look to counter this? Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger look to be the preferred central duo, but the Dane might be a doubt after an injury saw him miss last weekend's clash with West Ham.
Metro have speculated that Mamadou Sakho, who took Agger's place at Upton Park, might well get the nod again for Rodgers' side. The Frenchman offers a strong aerial presence, and while Aguero won't be battling much for high balls anyway, he can certainly step up and challenge Toure when needed.
As for their full-backs, Jon Flanagan and Glen Johnson started in the most recent fixture and could do so at Anfield. Aly Cissokho might have to make do with a place on the bench. The young Flanagan has gotten a long look-in with the side recently but will be put through a harsh test in this one. Can he cope with the dizzying array of talent City will throw at him?
There's also the question of each side's relative depth. City will likely have players like Milner, Stevan Jovetic and possibly Navas to add to their attack, while Liverpool only have a struggling Iago Aspas and Victor Moses.
The Reds do have guys like Lucas and Allen available to try to close out the game, though, matched on the blue side by Javi Garcia. If push comes to shove late, City may just have the edge they need to try to steal a result.
Once the players are decided, how will it all play out? Will Liverpool's midfield seek to slow play down to keep the ball away from City, or will they opt to test the shaky Demichelis? How will City's midfield maestros test Liverpool's rearguard?
These are just a couple of the questions we can ask ahead of this titanic clash of Premier League title giants. And while the trophy won't be given out until May 11, this Sunday will push us one giant step closer to determining which club has their team colors hung from the handles of the trophy.
How do you think this match will play out? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter.
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