The most exciting team in the Premier League face the most exciting player today, in what will surely be the defining game of the Christmas period.
Manchester City and Liverpool are the two top-scoring teams in the league, far ahead of Arsenal and Chelsea, and – excepting Everton – the two in the best recent form.
City have been compelling at the Etihad Stadium so far this season, with eight wins and 35 goals from their eight home games. They put six past Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur and scored four against Manchester United and Newcastle United. Much of that, though, owed to Sergio Aguero, who will be missing today with a calf injury.
Liverpool will be armed with the one player in the league even more dangerous and relentless than Aguero. Luis Suarez has scored an astonishing 19 league goals so far this season in just 12 games – more goals, in fewer games, than 11 Premier League teams, including Tottenham.
Brendan Rodgers believes Suarez can break the Premier League record of 34 goals set by Andy Cole and then Alan Shearer in the 42-game seasons of the early 1990s. The 38-game record of 31 goals set by Shearer and matched by Cristiano Ronaldo should be well within his reach. “He can do, because he has got that quality,” Rodgers said. “He will certainly push it close.”
Liverpool will take confidence from their two games against City last year, when they had the better of two 2-2 draws. “We arrive there with no fear,” added Rodgers. “We outplayed them last year, home and away. We had two draws and we should have won both games. But we will go there with every respect for them.”
The City manager, Manuel Pellegrini, insisted that Liverpool’s threat extended beyond Suarez. “He is in a very good moment. He has always been a very good striker. But Liverpool is not only Suarez. They are a very good team, it will be a tough game and we hope we can continue winning at home. We are not playing against Liverpool thinking of Luis Suarez. We are playing against Liverpool thinking we must repeat what we are doing at home.”
Having negotiated a difficult run of games, Everton should continue their Champions League push over the Christmas period. They entertain Sunderland today and Southampton on Sunday, before going to Stoke City on New Year’s Day.
Their success this season has been based on the best defensive record in the league, and Phil Jagielka – at the heart of their settled rearguard – hopes that they can continue it. “We won’t underestimate [Sunderland], we would be daft to do so. But on paper it is two games at home and, hopefully, we can extend this good run.”
Jagielka, though, does recognise a Sunderland improvement under Gus Poyet, even if results have not been perfect. “If you look at all of Gus Poyet’s games since he took over you can see the difference in the squad. They look a lot hungrier and they’ve been unlucky with a couple of decisions that possibly shouldn’t have been given.”
Tim Sherwood’s gung-ho Spurs will host manager-less West Bromwich Albion hoping to take the momentum from Sunday’s 3-2 win at Southampton. Sherwood’s embrace of 4-4-2 and Emmanuel Adebayor has reinvigorated a team who had lost their way under Andre Villas-Boas. It has also earned comparisons with their attacking football under Harry Redknapp, which Sherwood sees as a “compliment”, saying that he “would not mind following his career.”
“I am not trying to be Harry Redknapp but it is a simple game, though, isn’t it?” Sherwood said. “I think with the calibre of the players we have at Tottenham we shouldn’t have a dull game. As long as they are playing in their correct areas of the field and allowed to express themselves.”
Behind Everton, Newcastle United look the next likeliest team to break into the European positions, with six wins from their last eight games. They host Stoke today and are awash with confidence after their good run. “Like I have said many times before this season, we feel like we can beat anybody,” goalkeeper Tim Krul said after their 3-0 win at Crystal Palace on Saturday. “When you perform like that, you get more confidence in the team, more belief. We expect to compete against the top teams.”
Manchester United, having stabilised with two straight wins, travel to Hull City. Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie will not be ready quite yet but their manager, David Moyes, is hoping for a quick return. “There are always miracles at Christmas,” he said, “let’s hope there could be one for them.”
Malky Mackay will continue as Cardiff City manager as they welcome Southampton, hoping to build on their home record of three wins and two draws so far this season. Saints, despite their excellent start, have taken two points from their last six games, slipping from third place down to ninth.
In the bottom half of the table, Norwich City are at home to Fulham, for whom improved performances under Rene Meulensteen have brought just one win from four games. Aston Villa, who have lost their last three, take on Tony Pulis’s Crystal Palace.
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