Liverpool v Manchester City: Opportunity knocks again for Jurgen Klopp and his relentless Reds
Here they are again: Liverpool and Manchester City. The Premier League's leading protagonists primed for another high-paced, highly important battle, both determined to make a statement ahead of an international break.
It is 10 months since these two previously lined up against each other in the league. Back on January 3, the Reds went into the fixture at the Etihad Stadium knowing a win would open up a double-digit lead at the summit.
Success would not have secured the crown, of course, but it would have left their rivals with substantial ground to make up and with less than half a season remaining. City knew as much too, leading to a performance full of spirit to go with their undoubted skill.
"We knew that it was a final today, if we lose it is almost over," Pep Guardiola said after a hard-fought 2-1 triumph secured by Leroy Sane’s 72nd-minute goal.
For Jurgen Klopp's side, it was a first defeat in their 21st league outing. It also turned out to be the only one, yet they still could not end the club's long, agonising wait for title number 19.
So near, yet so far.
All eyes on Sunday pic.twitter.com/BJSlV9juwY— Liverpool FC (@LFC) November 7, 2019
Victory in the Champions League final helped soften the blow to a degree, but the league is undoubtedly the trophy the fanbase craves the most. Their bread and butter, as the legendary Bill Shankly once so wonderfully described it. Liverpool have been starved of it since 1990.
They have gone close on three occasions to ending the drought in the Premier League era, finishing second to Manchester United under Rafael Benitez in 2009, then missing out again five years later during Brendan Rodgers' reign, City on that occasion pipping them to the post. Those second-place finishes offered hope, albeit history shows they were false dawns in terms of climbing back on their perch.
There were reasons for the pessimists to fear the same might happen again this season, too. International commitments led to a disjointed return to club duty - Sadio Mane did not make it back until August 5, four days before the opener against Norwich City – while the transfer window was all about trimming the fat from the squad, rather than making major additions.
But, if anything, the disappointment of coming up short just a few months ago has fuelled a determination among a group of players clearly inspired by their manager.
Familiarity has not led to a lack of focus. The heavy metal football may have been toned down, yet Klopp has ingrained in them a cold, steely edge. No cause ever feels lost - just ask Barcelona from last season's European semi-final second leg, as well as Leicester City and Aston Villa more recently. These Reds have developed a ruthless, relentless streak, something that will be required if they want to stay ahead in a gruelling race.
These are the same faces, only this feels different. Fabinho was a second-half sub at the Etihad at the start of the year, a big-money signing still bedding in. Now he is a key cog, the anchor surrounded by attacking intent. There are few - if any - better than the Brazilian in the defensive midfield role across Europe. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, meanwhile, was not involved. He is quickly getting up to speed again after his lengthy injury lay-off, adding an alternative option to slot into the engine room. As for the defence, Klopp has the kind of options available to him that his opposite number would welcome right now.
21 - Of the last 40 shots on target that Claudio Bravo has faced in the Premier League, he's only saved 19 and conceded a goal with 21 of them. The Opta expected goals on target tally for these 40 shots was just 12.6. Recall? pic.twitter.com/ND2eLvfgEc— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 8, 2019
While there is still time for tiredness amid a crowded fixture list (enjoy the Club World Cup, everybody!) to kick in, this not-new-but-still-improved Liverpool have charged out of the gate with such ferocity that City are left trying to hang on to their coattails again. The going will get tougher, but a sizeable lead would give them some much-needed breathing space.
So, with a six-point cushion and with home advantage this time around, Klopp's warriors get a chance on Sunday to do something they could not quite manage at the start of 2019.
As was the case in Manchester, this weekend’s clash at Anfield will not decide the destiny of the trophy, despite the hyperbole surrounding it. While City have shown signs of vulnerability with two defeats on their record already, it should not be forgotten that they had also lost twice just prior to the previous meeting.
On that occasion, the fine margins that can define a football game amounted to 1.12 centimetres, the distance John Stones had to spare when clearing Sadio Mane's goal-bound effort with the score at 0-0.
This time, Liverpool will hope to get across the line against City. If they do, the early front-runners will become the firm favourites, even if there are still plenty of hurdles to clear.