If Liverpool or Manchester City’s lavish attacking talents have the final word on Sunday’s eagerly awaited Premier League clash, their lines in drama might well be drafted by defensive midfielders Lucas Leiva and Javi Garcia.
Boasting 174 league goals between them this season, Liverpool and City’s forward lines have reduced defences across the country to quivering wrecks.
Albeit within Brendan Rodgers’ progressive team structure, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge hark back to the classic strike partnerships of yesteryear—as examined here by the Daily Mail's John Edwards.
Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo, Edin Dzeko and Yaya Toure have passed 20 goals in all competitions for City, the first time in the club’s history that four players have breached this landmark during the same campaign.
Aguero’s return is particularly remarkable given his failure to play a Premier League match since netting in the 5-1 late January demolition of Tottenham.
The condition in which the Argentina international returns from a third muscular injury this term on Sunday, as discussed by the Manchester Evening News' Stuart Brennan, is sure to have a pivotal influence on City’s title hopes.
Similarly, the confrontation between Suarez and Blues captain Vincent Kompany—the league’s standout forward versus its most accomplished defender—and the midfield battle between Toure and Steven Gerrard have headline-grabbing qualities.
But with enough hot air to power several round-the-world balloon races bellowed pre-match, it is easy to neglect the quiet men.
City led Southampton 3-1 at home last weekend despite being second best for much of the first half.
The Saints’ fluid front three and technically sound, relentlessly harrying midfield casts them as something of a Liverpool-lite.
They were more than equal to City during a 1-1 December draw at St Mary’s, and this latest experience provided further uncomfortable viewing for boss Manuel Pellegrini.
Toure and Fernandinho are arguably the standout midfield pairing of 2013/14, a truly formidable duo. Yet against Southampton, they were outworked and overrun, and the latter collected a rash booking.
Fearful of the Brazilian receiving further punishment, Pellegrini removed Fernandinho at half-time and introduced Garcia.
A holding player in the more traditional sense, he supplied the control City lacked during the opening 45 minutes. Southampton’s threat subsided considerably and the hosts eased to a 4-1 win.
Little over 24 hours later in East London, Liverpool found themselves drawing 1-1 at the midway point of a bruising encounter with West Ham.
The attacking quartet of Suarez, Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling lacked their usual fluency; Gerrard and Jordan Henderson operated without their expected mastery of central areas.
Enter Lucas. Coutinho was the man sacrificed and—as with City upon Garcia’s arrival—control followed.
A succession of haphazard decisions from referee Anthony Taylor might have dominated the post-match analysis, but Liverpool silkily dominated possession. This was winning ugly in the same way a free-spending socialite might view cocktails three times per week as an act of prudent restraint.
The influence imparted by Lucas and Garcia last time out creates a dilemma for Rodgers and Pellegrini.
Neither player can be considered a first-choice pick. Splitting the Toure-Fernandinho and Gerrard-Henderson alliances is unthinkable, and both managers’ preference to field a full attacking complement generally rules out a specialist holder.
The area of the field both look to dominate is the space between defence and midfield—an opposition’s vulnerable core.
Aguero, David Silva, Samir Nasri and their Liverpool counterparts are masters at pulling teams apart from this vantage point, dragging defenders into uncomfortable positions and overloading them.
Poised slightly deeper are Gerrard and Toure—conducting proceedings through an impeccable range of passing, peppered with destructive surges into the chaos created ahead of them.
The main flaw within these two impeccable operators' make-up is how they adapt when play comes the other way. Strong tackling does not equate to defensive awareness.
Mathieu Flamini's equaliser during Arsenal's 1-1 draw against City last month underlined Toure's lackadaisical tendencies in this respect, and Gerrard is similarly vulnerable.
If City and Liverpool set up in the same way they did last weekend, both teams will be attacking the other’s most glaring weakness with its greatest strength.
Such an O.K. Corral-style shootout undoubtedly appeals to neutrals. Surely, Pellegrini and Rodgers are a touch more streetwise and will consider defending this space.
Liverpool missed out 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Boxing Day, but Rodgers will remember Lucas' influence at the base of his midfield in a display that merited at least a point.
City beat UEFA Champions League semi-finalists Bayern Munich and Chelsea this year in matches Garcia started. Pellegrini will remember being over-run at home by the same high-quality teams in games he didn’t.
Sunday afternoon at Anfield will rightly be a time for crowd heroes in blue and red—something Garcia and Lucas established themselves as the antithesis of during tortured introductions to the English game.
But as protectors of their teams' soft underbellies, both men could be key in the biggest game of the season.
If Rodgers or Pellegrini calls the other's bluff with a reluctant act of conservative team selection, expect Lucas or Garcia to reward them richly.
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