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Liverpool vs Manchester City: Is this a title decider? Plus predictions and combined XIs

Liverpool vs Manchester City: Is this a title decider? Plus predictions and combined XIs

Follow live coverage of Liverpool vs Manchester City in the Premier League today

There may be more than two months left in the 2023-24 Premier League but this afternoon’s meeting between Liverpool and Manchester City at Anfield has the feel of a decisive day.

In the red corner: Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who entered the weekend top of the table, with 14 wins from their last 16 games in all competitions, pursuing a historic quadruple and fuelled by the emotion of the manager’s impending summer departure. In the blue corner: Pep Guardiola’s City, a point behind their hosts at kick-off, last season’s treble winners and aiming at their own piece of history in the shape of a fourth consecutive title.

Meetings between the two are never less than intense and high-class, but how do we see this one shaping up?

We assembled a panel of Athletic experts to answer all the important questions — and some less important ones.

Does this game decide the title?

Oliver Kay: No. You are aware of Arsenal being in this title race, right? City are most people’s favourites and the odds will certainly shift one way or the other after today, but I don’t think they or Liverpool are as formidable as they were in 2018-19, when neither dropped a point on the run-in. I expect more twists and turns.

Daniel Taylor: Not quite. It’s March 10 — there are two months to go, and 30 more points to play for. It will, however, feel like curtains if City win at Anfield and then chop Arsenal down at the end of the month.

Sarah Shephard: I don’t think so, given Arsenal’s position. They visit the Etihad on March 31, and although their recent record there is pretty dire (they haven’t taken a single point since a draw in May 2016) it feels shortsighted to rule them out of the race at this stage given their recent league form. Should City beat Liverpool this weekend then that Arsenal game could be the one to decide it.

Alexis Mac Allister and Bernardo Silva meet with the title on the line (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Carl Anka: Sort of. City have only won once at Anfield in the Premier League in two decades, yet you can see they’ve found multiple routes to success. Liverpool will hope the home crowd will be a galvanising force at a time when injuries have depleted playing options. But this is before you consider Arsenal are still there. But all three teams know the danger comes if (and when) City reach the summit. They’re much harder to deal with when they are at the front of the peloton.

Nick Miller: No. Mainly because Arsenal are there too, but even if Liverpool win today and put four points between them and City, City are more than capable of making that up.

Which on-field battle are you most looking forward to?

Kay: Virgil van Dijk vs Erling Haaland — two giants of the game who, in different ways, are capable of bullying opponents. Van Dijk’s performance against Haaland at Anfield last season was superb at a time when he was playing poorly. He has been excellent this season, but he might have to raise his game even further today.

Van Dijk versus Haaland could decide this match (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Taylor: Phil Foden is the man of the moment, so it will be intriguing to see whether Andy Robertson can play as adventurously as normal and, in turn, pin him back. Van Dijk vs Haaland is obviously big. But I always think Mohamed Salah loves these occasions, too. Is Klopp going to risk starting him? I’m sure that has been the aim and, if so, it is going to be a key match-up against either Nathan Ake or Josko Gvardiol on the left of City’s defence.

Shephard: Jeremy Doku gave Trent Alexander-Arnold a challenging time at the Etihad earlier this season but with the winger an injury doubt for this game, I’ll go with Van Dijk vs Haaland. The Dutch defender has been in fine form so far this season while Haaland (who scored City’s goal in the 1-1 draw between these two in November’s reverse fixture) has been on the scoresheet in City’s last three games. A battle of the titans.

Anka: The duo of Rodri and John Stones against Alexis Mac Allister and Wataru Endo. The forward runs from the City pair have become a potent aspect of their attacking game. Endo has taken his team to another level since settling in, freeing Mac Allister to influence things in the final third. Klopp probably has Bernardo Silva’s name circled on his whiteboard at home too.

Miller: Foden versus whoever plays in Liverpool’s midfield. Foden is in such brilliant form at the moment that you almost forget Kevin De Bruyne is there too, so one of Liverpool’s biggest issues is how to stop the pair of them. There are loads though: Doku vs Conor Bradley, Dominik Szoboszlai (assuming he plays) getting at Rodri, Haaland against Van Dijk… god, this is going to be good.

Which team, at their best, are the most watchable?

Kay: I’m going to be contrary and say I would rather watch 2017-19 City or 2018-20 Liverpool than either of this season’s models. Both those teams looked faster and more free-flowing in possession. I don’t have quite the same feeling this season that I’m watching two of the greatest teams of all time at the peak of their powers.

Taylor: Such a tough question. Liverpool edge it, though, because of the speed of their counter-attacks. I used to get the same feeling with Arsene Wenger’s great Arsenal sides. They might be defending a corner, with almost everyone back, but all they need is one pass, a kind break or a mistake, and they are away. It’s quite some sight, six or seven players streaming forward at full pelt.

Liverpool’s attackers are a formidable force (George Wood/Getty Images)

Shephard: Liverpool are more likely to have you on the edge of your seat than Guardiola’s masters of control, who, at their best, are more capable of keeping a tight leash on a game from start to finish, leaving you (as a neutral) partly in awe and partly deflated by the realisation that sometimes it isn’t anybody’s game — it’s City’s.

Anka: This season’s City have remained their near-imperious selves, but there’s something about how near-perfect they play the game that makes it hard to stir the spirit. They lack the peril that makes football so human and exciting. Liverpool 2.0, on the other hand, have a striker who takes five shots per game and runs about like a speedboat with a broken rudder. Darwin Nunez is box office.

Miller: Liverpool. I prefer my football to be chaotic rather than controlled (although there is a certain beauty to that), so from that perspective there’s only really one choice.

Who would you rather go to the pub with, Klopp or Guardiola?

Kay: Without wishing to give this too much thought…

First four pints: Klopp full of life and bonhomie, Guardiola clearly uncomfortable (“Are you sure you’re OK with this, Pep?”. “More than you believe.”) but there would come a point (Four pints? Six? Eight?) at which Klopp would totally lose his rag at a perfectly reasonable aside and his mood would darken dramatically. That might well be the very point at which Guardiola, by now very well-oiled, began to loosen up.

Then, just when you really started to click with Guardiola, Klopp would bounce over again, all bear hugs and Jagerbombs, everything forgotten.

The answer is Klopp, but it’s not straightforward.

A pint with Pep? (Gunter Schiffmann/AFP via Getty Images)

Taylor: A night with Klopp would no doubt go on longer and mean the worst hangover the next morning. But I’m still saying Guardiola. I want to hear everything he has to say about Lionel Messi and ignore the fact he has been asked the same questions a million times.

Shephard: It depends on who you’re asking. If you’re asking Sarah the journalist, then it’s Guardiola who I feel gives less of himself as a person away than Klopp, and I’d like a few hours in his company to do some digging. If you’re asking Sarah the 40-something who just wants an easy, entertaining chat after a long week, then it’s probably Klopp.

Anka: Guardiola’s wife Cristina has said you can only talk to him about something non-football related for around 40 minutes before his mind begins to drift back to the game. I don’t like to talk about work when I go to the pub, so I’d go for a drink with Klopp and ask for his thoughts on Dune: Part Two.

Miller: Well, Klopp — obviously. But I’d fancy an evening with Guardiola to see if his weirdness is just a public-facing thing or if he is really like that all the time.

Which manager do you think will leave a bigger legacy in English football?

Kay: Both will leave powerful legacies in terms of the game as a whole, never mind their respective clubs, but when you see the number of teams trying to play out from the back constantly, even at grassroots/amateur level, the impact Guardiola has had on the English-football psyche is enormous.

Taylor: This is the easiest one to answer. Have you watched football in the lower divisions recently? You will see goalkeepers playing it short, defenders knocking it around their own penalty area. It’s Pep-ball. Look, I wrote a whole piece on it for The Athletic.

Shephard: Guardiola. He’s made City almost unbeatable at their best and pioneered tactical innovations, such as inverted full-backs and playing with a false nine/no recognised striker, that have already left their mark on the Premier League.

Guardiola will leave a lasting legacy on English football (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

Anka: I would like to say Klopp. His “Football is the most important of the non-important things in life” attitude is much needed. However, Guardiola’s approach to the game is now the favoured football meta. He may have strained himself to say he doesn’t play tiki-taka, but he’s held responsible for making the approach popular.

Miller: Personally, I’ll remember Klopp more fondly, but the actual answer is Guardiola; there are the trophies, but he also seems to influence more coaches, possibly because in theory his success is slightly more replicable. A lot of Klopp’s success seems to rest on his charisma and emotional intelligence — which you can’t really teach or emulate unless you have it. You could look at Guardiola and think “I could do that”, even if you would almost certainly be wrong.

What’s your favourite Liverpool-City moment in the Klopp-Guardiola era?

Kay: There have been so many matches of incredibly high quality — much more so than most/all of the big Premier League rivalries of the past. From a personal point of view, I’ve been lucky to go to many of these matches, but watching Sadio Mane score in this fixture while sitting among his family and friends at his home in Senegal was an incredible experience.

Shephard: The John Stones clearance off the line in January 2019, which nobody realised at the time would end up literally and figuratively symbolising the narrowest of margins between the two teams that season, given a single point separated them at the end of it all.

Taylor: Sarah has beaten me to it, but that goal-line clearance from Stones really should go down in City’s annals as one of their greatest individual moments. Do you know how far the ball was from being given as a goal? Eleven millimetres (less than half an inch)! Eleven! In a league that finished with City on 98 points and Liverpool on 97.

Anka: As a Manchester United fan and reporter, I reject the word “favourite”. Any entertainment I derive from watching these teams is swiftly followed by a sense of sadness that my club have a way to go before they get to that level. But, like Sarah and Danny, I often think of Stones’ goal-line clearance. If the ball had travelled another 11 millimetres, Liverpool would have won that game and the title.

Stones clears off the City line in 2019 (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Miller: I could pick any number of great goals or sensational games, but really it’s Guardiola screaming “TWICE! TWIIIIIIIICCCEEE!” into the night sky, with associated hand gestures and leaning back so far he nearly fell over, after he believed City had been denied a couple of penalties at Anfield in November 2019.

Name your combined XI from the current squads…

What’s your prediction for Sunday?

Kay: 2-2

Taylor: 2-2

Shephard: 2-2

Anka: 2-2

Miller: 2-1 to Liverpool.

Liverpool vs Manchester City today could help decide the Premier League title race — and The Athletic is analysing every angle that matters.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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