Jurgen Klopp has a number of big decisions to make for “one of the most difficult games to play in the world,” as Liverpool take on Man City in the Premier League.
The Reds have been far from their best for much of the season so far, but there have certainly been mitigating circumstances as injuries and a tight turnaround of fixtures have taken their toll.
Tuesday night saw Liverpool nearing top form, though, and it could not have come at a better time, with a 5-0 thrashing of Atalanta coming less than a week before a trip to the Etihad.
Klopp’s side sit five points above 10th-placed City heading into the weekend, and though their opponents have a game in hand, they could at least briefly extend that to eight with a big win in Manchester.
While a number of big-hitters remain sidelined, the manager is boosted by an increase in variety as he selects his side to take on City, with decisions to make in defence, midfield and attack.
So who starts in one of the biggest games of the season?
No reunion for Pep and Thiago
The signs were all there before Klopp’s pre-match press conference, with no sight of his No. 6 in training on Thursday and no place in Luis Enrique’s Spain squad, but Thiago was ‘officially’ ruled out soon after.
Klopp explained that “it will not be too long anymore but for this game I don’t think he will be in,” which will be music to the ears of Guardiola, who is well aware of Thiago‘s talents from their time together at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Thiago remains sidelined along with Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but Klopp is at least boosted by the availability of Joel Matip and Naby Keita.
Both are candidates to start on Sunday, while Klopp is likely to make further changes from the side who won so comfortably at Atalanta in midweek.
Roberto Firmino was omitted from the starting lineup in Italy, while it remains to be seen whether either Rhys Williams or Nat Phillips will be trusted to take on City despite their excellent displays in recent starts.
Liverpool’s XI vs. Man City
It is unlikely that Klopp will take too many risks at the Etihad, though he did intimate during his press conference that the “fittest players” would start.
Whether either Matip or Keita qualify within this is unclear, but they may well be the best options to come in for this high-profile clash – one that could, early-season or not, define the title race.
Despite their strong showings against West Ham and Atalanta respectively, it would be a gamble throwing either Phillips or Williams in against City, and the experience of Matip could pay off instead.
The No. 32 could make his first-ever start alongside Joe Gomez, with Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson making up the rest of the back five.
In midfield, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum are almost guaranteed to start, and the returning Keita could give Liverpool guile and thrust as the most-advanced midfielder.
And despite Diogo Jota‘s stunning hat-trick in the Champions League, it would be no surprise to see the Portuguese rotated back out to see Firmino join Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane in attack:
Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Gomez, Robertson; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Keita; Salah, Mane, Firmino
However, there is certainly cause to argue that Jota should be rewarded with another start, as Liverpool look to capitalise on the momentum and fluency of his successful linkup with Salah and Mane in Italy.
The same can be said of Curtis Jones, who excelled in his midfield role against Atalanta and, while it would be a step up in terms of the challenge, would likely relish the prospect of starting such a big game in the Premier League.
They are, arguably, the two biggest points of contention as Klopp prepares his side for this title clash, with Matip a likely starter having been rested throughout his return to the squad on Tuesday night.
Given there were four days between these two fixtures, and the next game after this comes in a fortnight, it could be that the manager is open to fewer changes this time out.
And it would see a strong, in-form side line up at the Etihad:
Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Gomez, Robertson; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Jones; Salah, Mane, Jota
Jota or Firmino is arguably the key decision for Klopp as he looks ahead to this tie, and either way it is difficult for the Liverpool manager to get this one wrong.
Despite the injuries he continues to contend with, he now has a plethora of match-winning options available to him as he pushes for a big advantage at the expense of a Premier League rival.