For a fixture that initially felt like it was coming too early in the season, the mood around both Manchester City and Liverpool is that today couldn’t have come sooner.
That is how much is weighing on this match. That is how portentous and tense the build-up has been. That is how raring to go an energised Liverpool are. That is how much a defiant City want to make a point.
And it is for those reasons that this might actually be a perfect time for such a title showdown. That has created a genuinely unique context, and only added to the sense of consequence about this game.
If Liverpool win, they will be a massive 10 points clear of the champions and know they are within touching distance of the title they have waited so long for. Their relentless winning, and fact they will have also won at the champions, will further foster the feeling that they won’t drop enough points in the remaining 17 games for anyone else to come in. The aura will only grow with the confidence.
If City win, however, that aura will instantly evaporate. The situation will be totally transformed. That is why there was a sense of warning in Pep Guardiola’s voice on Wednesday as he said: “Everybody is saying what happens if we lose – what happens if we win?”
Well, the champions – who have already proven their ability to go on long winning runs and previously had the feel of a juggernaut – would have cut the gap to a mere four points and put all the pressure back on Liverpool. The distinctive, driving momentum will have gone. After a first defeat, every other match – no matter where – will look that bit more awkward for the leaders. The entire season will move along the spectrum from exciting opportunity towards tense challenge. Those 29 years will weigh on every single match afternoon.
One hugely prominent European manager confided over Christmas that he thinks the atmosphere around Liverpool is so excitable that there is a real danger they could collapse under the weight of it all, especially if they suffer a setback. And what if they suffer that setback to the champions?
That is why this does feel like a juncture match, even this early in the season, so long as it is not a draw. But then that’s a result that has only happened three times in 13 meetings between these two managers, and only three times in the last 14 meetings between the clubs. It just so happened to be the last meeting, that 0-0 at Anfield in October. Riyad Mahrez’s early-season penalty miss may well prove one of the most influential moments of the title race, not unlike Ruud van Nistelrooy’s against Arsenal in September 2003, and especially if Liverpool remain unbeaten after this.
It has helped ensure that, whatever happens after this game, all of the pressure right now is on City.
They simply must win, as Guardiola himself admitted after the relief of the victory over Southampton. “We drop points, it’s over, it’s finished,” the Catalan said. “It would be almost impossible.”
On top of all that, Guardiola must also figure out a way to transform his team’s pitiful recent fragility into a show of real force, against what now looks the most resolute side in the league.
A City side who for over a year have had a situation where there has never been any real pressure to win any individual league game now absolutely must win this one.
But these are also elements that transform the dynamic between these two teams, and the fixture. The pressure on City to win means that it is up to them to ultimately take the game forward and attack. How Jurgen Klopp approaches it, and how Liverpool go about securing the win, therefore makes tonight’s fixture all the more interesting.
There is no need for Liverpool to offer up space, especially with this newly cast-iron Virgil van Dijk-led defence, but then it is exactly by going at Guardiola’s sides that Klopp has had his greatest successes. This is how he’s always beaten the Catalan. He tried a more calculated approach in October, looking to funnel City’s possession down more vulnerable avenues Liverpool could press, and somewhat luckily got the draw but didn’t really look like winning.
Is there a danger that a similar approach could start to remove what feels the crucial complex that City have about this Liverpool? Might the fear factor of that ferocious attack go, and embolden City on the night?
Even Southampton showed that City’s backline has recently been so nervous and reticent that going at them remains the best approach. But would that then open up the pitch in such games in the way Guardiola’s attackers love?
The options for the Catalan are in that sense clearer, but thereby more all the more focused and pressurised. Left-back remains a problem, especially against Mohamed Salah. If Oleksandr Zinchenko has a bad moment against him here, it will be a lot harder to recover than at Southampton.
City will have to focus on possession and building centrally because if they lose the ball when one of their wide players is forward, they could be finished. Their title challenge could be finished.
Figuring out that is one of many individual challenges for Guardiola ahead of this game. Both managers have much to ponder, meaning it’s maybe just as well the build-up feels so long. Because the match really does feel so decisive.
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