Before the start of the Premier League season, plenty of fans – and players – circled this weekend on the calendar. Manchester City vs Liverpool: the two dominant teams of the English Game over the past five years. In that period, their battle for supremacy has been far more than just the 90 minutes when they face off on the satin-smooth pitches of Anfield or the Etihad. Their stoush has been more like a gruelling heavyweight boxing 12-rounder – the league title decided by a 38-game war of attrition, two behemoths pushing each other to ever-greater heights.
Watch the world’s best footballers every week with beIN SPORTS on Kayo. LIVE coverage from Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A, Carabao Cup, EFL & SPFL. New to Kayo? Start your free trial now >
Manchester City has emerged victorious in four of the last five campaigns, the Reds pipping them just once in ’19-20. But Liverpool has added a Champions League title in that period too, in 2018-19 – the one trophy the Cityzens are most desperate to get their hands on.
Everything feels different now. Much has changed; even in the couple of months since Liverpool beat City 3-1 to claim the Community Shield, the traditional piece of pre-season silverware.
City has been imperious as ever this season, Pep Guardiola’s well-oiled machine rolling past rivals with ease: Seven wins, two draws, and not one defeat launching them into second, one point behind Arsenal – the shock leaders after a sizzling first nine rounds.
Somehow City seems even stronger than ever, at least going forward. They’ve scored 33 goals in their nine games – ten more than second-best Arsenal. They’ve conceded an equal-fewest nine in reply. Their goal difference is therefore a whopping 24, 11 better than the Gunners and a further three in front of Spurs (coincidentally, three points behind in third).
Bobby’s big night out for Liverpool! | 01:50
City has terrorised their rivals, brushing aside Manchester United 6-3 in a derby win that laid bare the chasm between the two Mancunian clubs. Their supremacy has been epitomised by unstoppable new striker Erling Haaland. 15 goals – including three hat-tricks – in nine Premier League games. Five in three in the Champions League. No player has ever had a more productive start to life in the Premier League. Should he score (just) once this weekend, he will match Liverpool’s Luis Suarez with 16 goals in a 10-game league run (Oct-Dec 2013) – the all-time Premier League record.
“It’s unbelievable honestly,” City teammate Jack Grealish told BT Sport about Haaland last week, after a win over (Socceroo Mat Ryan’s) FC Copenhagen in the Champions League.
“I’ve never witnessed anything like it in my life. For the first and second goals I was just laughing. He is always there. The keeper said something to me as I was walking back. He said: ‘He’s not human!’ I said: ‘You’re telling me!’”
Even Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp can’t help but be impressed.
“Nobody in the world can cope with the [Erling] Haaland situation, it’s crazy what he’s doing. He’s an exceptional player in an exceptional team and I don’t think we should compare anyone with that at the moment.”
Liverpool haven’t been comparable to City this season. The fear factor that opponents surely felt when facing the Reds appears to have evaporated – as has their form.
The Reds played a whopping 63 matches last year – reaching the final in every knockout competition – and were on the brink of an unprecedented quadruple of titles. Yet they fell short in the league and the Champions League, and winning the FA Cup and League Cup felt like consolation prizes.
This year, they have looked physically and mentally drained time and again.
Speaking on The Overlap Fan Debate, former Manchester United and England star Gary Neville said the ‘emotion’ of last season has taken a toll.
Man United claim last gasp winner! | 00:42
“I’ve praised Liverpool and Klopp for the last five, six years for the levels they’ve reached – it’s been off the scale – but I felt before the game Arsenal fans were expecting to win,” Neville said.
“I’m not talking about playing badly, I’m talking about the physical depression in their performance seemed alarming to me.
“When he [Klopp] first came in, the first two years was frantic. It wasn’t really a polished team; it was just brilliant to watch and exciting. Then they became good at possession – and you had the pressing, the counter-attack.
“They like the slow game now, but the frantic bit, the pressing has gone, and that was everything to me about a Klopp team. The emotion of last season is just catching up with them and not having anything in the tank this season. I can look back on moments where that’s happened.
“Jurgen Klopp has just been punching above his weight for so long when you look at the net spend of all the other teams, and what he’s achieved has just been off the scale to be competing with that [Manchester] City team.”
The painful truth is that so far this season, the Reds aren’t competing with the best. They have been miles away at times – defensively porous, overrun in the middle of the park, and struggling to get the best out of their stars up front like Mohamed Salah (two goals in eight league games).
They have conceded the first goal in 10 of their last 12 league games dating back to last season, forcing them on the back foot – or waking them up from their tired slumber – time and again.
They have conceded 12 times in their eight league games so far this season, with their two wins, four draws, and two losses leaving them 10th and already 13 points behind City. The 12 goals they have shipped is level, by way of example, with 18th-placed Wolves.
And while City’s big-money signing Haaland has blown records out of the water with his hot start to life in England, Liverpool’s own hugely expensive attacking arrival, Darwin Nunez (£64m up to a club‑record £85m with add-ons), hasn’t hit the ground running – though he hasn’t been atrocious by any means. He lost his head at Crystal Palace and headbutted Joachim Anderson on his full debut. It earned him a three-game ban and a stint on the bench thereafter. He now has three goals from five starts in all competitions, hardly a terrible record for a new signing settling in England. But it looks worse, much worse, when compared to Haaland’s unbelievable start – and the two were always going to be compared.
Gunners continue winning ways in UEL | 00:49
Liverpool this week thrashed Rangers 7-1 in the Champions League, with the perennially underrated Roberto Firmino scoring twice to put the side in front after Liverpool once again conceded first. He passed up an opportunity to make it a hat-trick to tee up Nunez for his first goal – and goals in back-to-back matches, a green shoot of form that Reds fans will be hoping turns into far more. Then Mohamed Salah came off the bench to score a hat-trick in six minutes and 12 seconds, a Champions League record for its rapidity. It seemed like a turning point in the Reds’ campaign. The only problem is that we’ve said that before – more than once.
Liverpool beat Rangers 2-0 in a comfortable win last week only to lose to Arsenal 3-2 days later. The Reds demolished Bournemouth 9-0 in one of the most one-sided matches you’ll ever see… then limped past Newcastle and looked miserable in a 0-0 Merseyside Derby draw with Everton.
Every turning point has proven a false dawn so far. As Klopp said before the Rangers match: “This is a tough situation but it is also a challenge. We always face challenges but we go for it and I am sorry to all our people who expected that after last season we go again and fly again and compete for everything. And now it is not the case.”
But after the game, he said everything had changed.
“It changes the mood, definitely,” Klopp said. “It is completely different. We usually drink a beer after away games, but it is that long [since we won away – the Rangers win was their first of the season] that I will probably be drunk after one.”
Having fought so hard for five or six years, many have questioned whether, or how, this new-look Liverpool – missing Sadio Mane and facing an injury crisis – can rebound from their poor start to mount any serious title challenge.
But City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne told Sky Sports this week: “I expect them to be at the best Liverpool possible. Obviously they lost some points but they are still Liverpool and I expect them to be good, that’s the only way I see it.”
UCL wrap: Spurs just, Reds run rampant! | 02:12
For Klopp, and for Reds fans, the hope is for something special – the kind of unique brilliance that saw Salah smash records with his 372-second trio of goals midweek.
“With Mo, I hope it’s like us, we are close to exploding,” Klopp said.
So far, Haaland has been the explosive X-Factor of the season, with City’s inexorable power and panache reducing rivals to rubble. Now it’s up to the Reds to respond – and prove that five brilliant years of battling aren’t over yet.
LIVERPOOL’S INJURY CRISIS
Few clubs have battled with injuries to the same extent as the Reds this season – and that remains the case today.
Trent Alexander-Arnold will be absent this weekend, after an ankle injury in a torrid first-half effort against Arsenal last weekend. But the English fullback has been well below his dazzling best this season anyway, and City’s deadly attackers would have been licking their lips after a series of frail defensive performances.
Luis Diaz, with four goals and three assists this season, is a major absentee after a knee injury against Arsenal that could rule him out until the World Cup concludes. Joel Matip suffered a thigh injury against Arsenal and is also out of action.
Naby Keita is out, as is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, while their desperate injury-replacement signing of Arthur Melo from Juventus is a gamble that has not paid off, with Arthur playing just once since his move before requiring surgery for a muscle injury – something which will see him ruled out for three months.
But some reinforcements are on their way. Andy Robertson should return to the starting XI after emerging off the bench against Rangers. Academy product Curtis Jones is close to a return to the squad, adding much-needed midfield depth.
For City, Kyle Walker had surgery in recent weeks on a groin injury that will rule him out for months. Kalvin Phillips is close to a return from a shoulder injury, but unlikely to start if he does feature. John Stones (thigh) could return.