Liverpool’s quest to end a 30-year wait to reclaim the domestic crown that once took almost permanent residency in Anfield’s trophy room reaches a defining moment on Sunday.
If Jürgen Klopp’s side beat Manchester City it will give them a nine-point advantage over the reigning champions at the top of the table, and put them eight clear of both Leicester and Chelsea.
That would effectively mean a Liverpool side that has lost only one of their past 50 league games would need to lose at least three of their next 26 to let City back in.
It is not inconceivable as Liverpool had a 10-point lead over Pep Guardiola’s side last season after they had played 20 games, although City had played a game fewer.
This season, however, Liverpool seem propelled by an unstoppable momentum.
For all the mind games, the downplaying of expectations and consequences, Klopp’s side have an opportunity to strike what could be a decisive blow in the title race.
Liverpool have had near misses before, notably when Steven Gerrard’s fateful slip against Chelsea let City in at the end of the 2013-14 season, but win on Sunday and they will feel an irresistible force is with them, even as early as November.
All logic suggests, given Liverpool’s form over the past 18 months, that victory and that increasing gap would simply not give Manchester City – or anyone else – enough wriggle room to claw it back.
The stakes could not be higher in the Premier League context, with extra colour being added to the backdrop by what appears to be an increasingly fractious relationship between the two clubs on course to conduct English football’s greatest rivalry, fought out at home and abroad, for years to come.
Manchester City will have plenty to say about this, despite being underdogs and suffering from a series of key injuries, the latest being to goalkeeper Ederson. The Brazilian, not only an outstanding keeper but a key figure in City’s possession game, will be replaced by 36-year-old Chilean Claudio Bravo, who has not featured in the league for 18 months.
If City feel some of their achievements have been undervalued while lavish praise has been showered on Klopp and Liverpool after their Champions League triumph, then they have a valid point.
City’s excellence under Guardiola has almost been taken for granted in some quarters. They made history by winning the league in 2017-18 with 100 points then retained it last season, staying ahead of Liverpool by putting together 14 successive wins to maintain a one-point advantage.
And this was also a team that made history by winning an unprecedented domestic treble of the league title, Carabao Cup and FA Cup. It is remarkable that this achievement seems to have been downplayed given its scale.
It is a tribute to City’s growth and consistency under Guardiola that it could be argued they have not had the credit they deserve for this feat.
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This is why, despite common sense and current form pointing towards Liverpool at Anfield, Manchester City must not be discounted.
Liverpool, though, are a magnificent side driven by a self-belief that not only fuels Klopp’s team but has sown the seeds of doubt and fear in opponents, as shown at Villa Park last Saturday when a 1-0 deficit after 86 minutes became a 2-1 win by the final whistle. In the league at least, they have forgotten how to lose.
And with City stripped of Ederson and Aymeric Laporte, Liverpool will believe the attacking trident of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino can cash in.
Liverpool’s recent record is beyond formidable, both in the Premier League and also against City at Anfield.
Under Klopp, they have won 41 won and drawn eight of their past 50 league games. Their last loss was the 2-1 defeat at Manchester City in January that effectively decided the title. In that period they have won 23 of their 25 home games, losing none, and 18 of their past 25 away from home.
As for Anfield itself, City will need to turn the tide of history on Sunday. Since their last victory at the stadium, a 2-1 win in May 2003, they have played 16 league games, losing 11. In all competitions, they have played 18 and lost 12.
Liverpool are unbeaten in 45 league games at home since Crystal Palace won 2-1 in May 2017, winning 35 of those.
When the teams met at Anfield last October, it was their eighth league game of the season and the sides played out an uncharacteristically cagey goalless draw, although City’s Riyad Mahrez missed a late penalty.
It left the two teams on 20 points after that game and both Klopp and Guardiola satisfied.
Liverpool and City’s current league positions and points tallies suggest Klopp will see this as a golden chance to stretch the lead, also delivering a psychological blow, while Guardiola will regard it as an opportunity to make a statement and reel Liverpool in.
It is, on this occasion, a game unlikely to be characterised by caution.
And yet there is more, so much more, to add spice to this latest collision of the Premier League’s superpowers.
This is now more than a football match. It is a rivalry with a serious edge on and off the pitch – and the evidence has been there again in the build-up to Sunday’s game.
Guardiola fired a shot in the direction of Anfield, unwittingly or not, when he used the word “diving” after City beat Southampton 2-1 last week and Liverpool’s late win at Villa, a game in which Mane was booked for simulation.
Liverpool’s past two home league games against Leicester City and Liverpool have been won 2-1, both secured with late penalties awarded for fouls on Mane. Klopp responded by promising not to mention the “tactical fouls” City have been accused of making under Guardiola – while, of course, mentioning them.
It was the first sign of any underlying public tension involving the two managers.
And then there were concerns, apparently raised at executive level, from Manchester City about a poster on social media suggesting Liverpool fans “greet” the visitors’ team bus when it arrives at Anfield – evoking memories of the shameful attack that took place before their Champions League quarter-final first leg in April 2018.
Merseyside Police insists there are no concerns about security for the game but there is no question the incident before Liverpool’s 3-0 win, in which City’s team bus was so badly damaged it had to be replaced for the journey home, still rankles.
As if that were not enough, there has been the recent “Spygate” controversy, with allegations of Liverpool recruitment staff hacking into City’s scouting database in 2013. Liverpool were reported to have paid a £1m settlement, although without the club or any individuals accepting any liability or wrongdoing.
The title may be on the line at Anfield on Sunday but it is the backdrop which makes this even more compelling.
It is set to be the latest gripping chapter in the great new rivalry in English football.