The title fight: The key issues that should decide Liverpool and Manchester City's Anfield encounter

 

Will Rodgers play Coutinho?

Depending on the opposition, Brendan Rodgers has switched formations regularly. At Cardiff, where the home side was expected to sit deep, he chose Philippe Coutinho at the head of a midfield diamond because of the Brazilian's ability to pick holes in tight defences. At Old Trafford, knowing Manchester United would come on to Liverpool, he chose the quicker, more direct, Raheem Sterling. Manchester City are an attacking side, but they are away from home and know a point would leave them in control of the title race. They will not want to enable Liverpool's preference for counter-attacking – the Reds have spent the same amount of time in the opposition half (27 per cent) as Newcastle and Hull. This suggests Coutinho, but Sterling has been in better form and City's central defence has looked vulnerable when opponents run at it.

Which manager will gamble?

Attacking full-backs play an important role for both teams, especially City's Pablo Zabaleta and Glen Johnson (Liverpool attack down the right a third more often than down the left). But attacking full-backs leave space in behind. Rodgers exploited that against Arsenal, asking Luis Suarez to play wide right and target Nacho Monreal. Much may depend on the identity of the flank players. Jon Flanagan would be wise not to leave Jesus Navas alone, while if Sterling is on Liverpool's left, how far will Zabaleta dare venture forward? Johnson versus either Samir Nasri or David Silva could be pivotal. Neither City player is diligent tracking back, which means Johnson, if he gambles, could be a real threat; but as Arsenal found recently, give Silva space and he will punish you, as can the in-form Nasri.

Set-plays are crucial

For all the attacking talent, it could come down to a set-play. Even without including penalties, Liverpool (21) and City (18) have scored more goals from set-pieces than any other teams. Given the dead-ball prowess of Yaya Touré and Luis Suarez, and the aerial power of Edin Dzeko and Martin Skrtel, both teams will seek to avoid conceding free-kicks and corners.

Will Pellegrini mark Gerrard?

Steven Gerrard has been controlling games for Liverpool, dictating play from a deep-lying midfield role while the young men ahead of him run the opposition ragged. Such is the quality and range of his passing that Gerrard has been operating like a quarterback. The best way to curtail his influence is to deny him time and space. This means detailing a forward to drop back and mark him, or a midfielder to push on. It is a role that requires discipline, strength and energy, so probably not one for the likes of David Silva, Samir Nasri or Sergio Aguero. Yaya Touré is the man for the job; not only would he cramp Gerrard's creativity but be a goal threat himself in such an advanced position. However, it would mean Javi Garcia filling the Ivorian's customary, deeper role. Given Touré's value in that position, will Manuel Pellegrini take the risk?

Is Sergio Aguero really fit?

It is never easy to assess when a player has fully recovered from a muscular injury, as has been shown by Eden Hazard, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Diego Costa all being subbed in the Champions' League this month after aggravating problems. Ordinarily Pellegrini would like to ease Aguero back into action after a month out with a hamstring injury, but such is the importance of today's game it seems he will take the risk and play the striker. But every time the Argentine starts a sprint his manager will be nervous.

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