Liverpool and Man City meet in a game that could all but end the Reds’ Premier League title hopes on Sunday, but how confident are those fans down the M62?
The Reds lost 1-0 at home to Brighton on Wednesday night, in yet another dreadful result against a relegation-threatened outfit.
Meanwhile, City were victorious away to Burnley, meaning they are now seven points clear of Liverpool, having played one game fewer.
Pep Guardiola’s side are in an unstoppable run of form at the moment and will surely be eyeing up a first win at Anfield since 2003.
With kickoff approaching, we spoke to City fan and writer Howard Hockin (@howiehok3434) to hear all about the leaders’ dominance, Liverpool’s woes and Sunday’s match.
Man City lead the way in the Premier League – how would you assess their season so far?
As it has been for most of us, it’s been a strange few months.
Man City started the season with an impressive win at Wolves, but soon floundered. The lack of a pre-season led almost inevitably to a spate of muscle injuries to players and some underwhelming performances followed.
There was a point just a couple of months ago when some City fans were questioning whether we would finish in the top four.
The defeat at Tottenham was sobering and the draw at home to West Brom, just when it seemed the team was gaining momentum, certainly tempered expectations.
City had breezed through their Champions League group and were progressing nicely in the League Cup (obviously), but it seemed like last season’s underwhelming performances were now the norm.
But then slowly but surely, things turned around and now the club has won all nine games in January, the goals have started to flow, and despite all the early-season struggles, the team has only lost two games all season.
Things are far from perfect, but that is the situation for everyone. Considering the team lacks a striker it has been quite the turnaround over the past two months.
What has changed during this unstoppable run of form?
The main problem with City when they are not firing on all cylinders is that they allow the opposition to score numerous goals from a few chances.
The key to the improvement in form has undoubtedly been the defence. The signing of Ruben Dias has been transformative – his impact so far has been as seismic as the arrival of Virgil van Dijk at Anfield.
From the moment Vincent Kompany left City, there was a gap in the defence and a gap in leadership within the team that undermined any drive for success.
Dias has filled that void and it is hard to believe that he is only 23 and has settled in so quickly.
When a team is confident that it will not concede and can defend a lead, the effect is hard to quantify.
The resurgence of John Stones has been almost as important, and for the first time in many years, City have a proper defensive partnership.
Over the past month or so, the goals have finally begun to flow, too, and without a recognised striker most of the season, a number of players have stepped up to chip in with the goals.
Who have been City’s three best players so far this season?
It would be easy to mention Kevin De Bruyne, who despite not reaching the heights of last season, is still a class above virtually everyone he plays with.
But I would rather pick out three others.
I have already mentioned Dias, but Stones has been imperious next to him. I will be honest, I had given up on him by last summer.
It wasn’t his performances that were the main problem, and a seeming lack of confidence in his own ability, but the constant niggling injuries. As soon as he was back in the team, he was out for a month or so again.
But to see him choose to stay and fight for a place, find the best form of his career and even oust Aymeric Laporte from the team has been amazing to see.
Ilkay Gundogan has been a major factor in City’s resurgence in the past month or so, but it is perhaps telling that my third chance is another defender: Joao Cancelo.
My praise is reserved mostly for his attacking prowess, however, as he has been a revelation further up the field, with deft touches and passing through the lines adding another dimension to our play.
Any individuals who have struggled?
Quite a few, though I wonder how much of that is linked to the times we are living through.
Someone like Ferran Torres was an under-the-radar signing who was our top goalscorer in the group stages of the Champions League but has faded away since, not helped by testing positive for COVID-19.
Gabriel Jesus has also tested positive in recent times, so it is hard to analyse whether his average form is related to that or simply a continuation of what went before.
Raheem Sterling has certainly not matched the heights of previous seasons and has never been a big performer at Anfield anyway, so it will be interesting to see if he starts on Sunday.
Switching our attention to Liverpool, do you see them as City’s main threat?
A week ago no, but then I saw the light. And then you lose to Brighton, and it’s hard to know what to think anymore.
There was always the suspicion in a season when 85 points may well be enough to win the league that Man United could finish first, despite apparently never playing well.
They seem to be a moments team without any recognisable system, but enough good players to bale them out when it matters.
But the past week has confirmed that it is City’s to lose now, but deep down I still think Liverpool that are their main title rivals. A better system and a better manager. And they’ve been there and done it.
I wonder if United’s players really have it in them to come out on top in a tight title race – would Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, too?
How detrimental do you think injuries have been for them?
I see with Liverpool the same problem City had last season when Laporte was out and Pep Guardiola moved Fernandinho into defence for many of the games.
On the surface, you have not leaked goals and it is a sterile attack that has seen you suffer, but all parts of a team are linked. As soon as you move Fabinho into defence, you lose something in midfield, and in turn something in attack.
Ultimately, teams like City and Liverpool cannot play with such intensity for more than a couple of years, at most. There will always be a lull.
Whilst Liverpool have clearly been hit hard in central defence with injuries, and at least one key issue was an impact injury and not the result of an incessant and brutal schedule, a run of players being out is of little surprise.
Other teams have had to cope with it before, with little sympathy.
But of course so many injuries will have an adverse affect – a stable side week in, week out will always fare better than a team that has had to play lesser defenders and 12 different centre-back partnerships in just a few months.
Looking ahead to Sunday’s game, who do you fear most for the Reds?
Last week Sadio Mane would have been my main concern, but it seems that Mo Salah is coming into form at the worst time for City, which may be a weird thing to say as he is the Premier League‘s top scorer anyway.
And Mane seems to be a doubt for the game as well, which will boost City’s chances considerably, as shown by the performance against Brighton.
It’s hardly being controversial to suggest that a firing front-free for Liverpool is always the main area of concern.
Allowing full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to get into crossing positions is naturally something Guardiola will look to restrict, too.
Where do you see the key battles taking place at Anfield?
These predictions usually come to bite me on the behind, but I think the early stages of the game may be cautious. Or at least Pep may wish it to be, considering City’s poor starts to Anfield games in the past.
Ultimately, I expect the midfield battle to be a key area. Thiago, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and more could all have a crucial impact on the result.
The team that is less profligate on the day will decide who wins the game, though.
Liverpool may feel they need a win more than City do, but I don’t think that is a major factor in how both managers will approach the game on the day.
For City now the game is almost a free hit, so there is a desire from many fans to go for it at Anfield, take advantage of your defensive woes and end the Anfield curse.
Finally, hit us with your prediction, both for the game and the title race…
I’ll sit on the fence and go for 1-1.
I remain convinced that no team is winning the title easily, or with more than a week or two to spare. I am amazed that City have found themselves top with a game in hand, although that game is at Goodison Park.
A few months ago, I said that the title would be won by the team that can go on a long winning run during a brutal season, and City have won 13 on the bounce in all competitions.
If I was a neutral and could take emotion out of the equation, I would probably tip City to win the league by four or five points.
But next week, I would probably have a completely different answer. It’s been that type of season!