City heads to Anfield with score to settle against Liverpool
Among the more illuminating parts of Manchester City's recently released, fly-on-the-wall documentary was Pep Guardiola discussing his fears about playing Liverpool, and in particular its prolific front three.
"They scare me," a pensive-looking Guardiola told two members of his technical staff as he paced around a locker room inside the stadium of Liverpool's Merseyside neighbor, Everton.
And with good reason.
City made two trips to Anfield last season and they proved to be uncomfortable experiences in every sense.
The first was in January, when a 4-3 loss ended its quest to become the second "Invincibles" of the Premier League after going 22 games unbeaten. City conceded three goals in a dizzying nine-minute span in which Guardiola's players looked rattled for the first time all season.
The second was in April, when a 3-0 loss in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals virtually ended City's chances of winning the biggest prize in European soccer for the first time. That night started with City's team bus getting smashed up on its way to the ground by beer cans and bottles chucked by Liverpool fans, and it didn't get any better on the field.
The architects behind those two big wins for Liverpool were Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, a front three of pace and perpetual movement that so clearly concerns Guardiola. They scored five of Liverpool's seven goals in those games, with Salah and Firmino also scoring in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals that Liverpool also won en route to reaching the final.
So it's not unreasonable to suggest Salah, Firmino and Mane have been occupying Guardiola's thoughts this week ahead of his team's latest visit to Liverpool and its storied, atmospheric stadium — where City has not won since 2003.
Sunday's match is between the top two teams in the Premier League, tied with 19 points and both unbeaten after seven games. Liverpool finished 25 points behind first-place City last season but looks to be the champion's biggest title rival this time after a net spend of about $200 million in the offseason.
What will be telling this weekend is if Guardiola has learned from those Anfield defeats of last season and adjusts his tactics accordingly. He is well-known for his unwavering belief in a possession-based, attack-minded approach that comes with obvious risks, given that it involves his goalkeeper and defenders playing the ball out from the back and also two playmakers in a midfield three.
That plays into Liverpool's hands — Juergen Klopp's high-energy game plan often relies on pressing from the front and then counter-attacking at pace — and Guardiola knows it. Klopp has won seven of his 14 meetings with Guardiola over the years, losing only once in six while both have been in English soccer.
Guardiola tried something different in April, playing an extra midfielder in Ilkay Gundogan instead of a winger, Raheem Sterling, in a bid to exert more control. By the time Gundogan trudged off after 57 minutes to be replaced by Sterling, City was trailing 3-0 and the experiment had failed.
Will he rein in his fullbacks this time? Leave out one of his playmakers and play a more defensive center midfield to better protect the defense? It goes against Guardiola's philosophy but he realizes something has to change.
Guardiola also acknowledged City got too "involved in the environment" at Anfield last season, and that was borne out in Liverpool scoring three goals in nine minutes in the first game and three goals in 19 minutes in the second. City, in essence, simply folded after conceding and took too long to recover.
It makes the first goal so crucial on Sunday. Liverpool versus Man City almost always lives up to its billing as one of the most entertaining matches on the English calendar, especially now that Klopp and Guardiola are in the respective dugouts.
City has a score to settle after its pair of Anfield humiliations. Liverpool wants to make another early-season statement that it is a genuine challenger for its first title since 1990.
Expect it to be gripping viewing.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80