Such is the strength of Manchester City last season that Liverpool are only just becoming favourites for the Premier League title in the popular imagination.
You can tell how good each side are by the shower of compliments that have been raining down in the build-up to the match. No barbed jibes or ‘mind games’ in sight.
“The problem is the other team is fantastic,” Guardiola has said of Liverpool and the current title race.
“[Liverpool are] maybe the best team in Europe or the world right now and in top form. You have to accept it. All we can do is do our job, play our games and after that we will see.”
Liverpool, despite their lead — one of a size that, at the turn of the calendar year, hasn’t been squandered since Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle of 1995/96 — are doing their best to reposition themselves as underdogs.
“They’re a fantastic team, a very experienced team and they’ve been in this position before,” Liverpool’s left-back Andy Robertson said of City.
“They’ve won the title. It’s something that we’ve never had. They’re probably more experienced than us in this position but we look forward to it.”
An unassailable lead?
It’s that fact that Liverpool — not just this crop of players, but the club has a whole — haven’t won the title in so long that is why caution reigns at Anfield. The indignity of blowing the chance to break a 29-year dry spell, plus the embarrassment of becoming another Newcastle, is enough to keep anyone from letting themselves truly believe.
They have reason to, though. If Jurgen Klopp’s side were to keep up their current rate of 2.7 points per game then they’d be mathematically impossible for City to topple.
If Liverpool dropped down to City’s current rate of 2.35 points per game, then Pep Guardiola’s side would only have breathing room of five points that they could drop.
If City kept up their current rate and just hoped Liverpool slipped up, the Reds would need to drop to a rate of 1.96 points per game for the Sky Blues to retain their trophy. Overnight, that’d be Anfield’s finest becoming a Europa League-quality team.
Hanging in the balance
This game comes at a convenient time in the season, narrative-wise. A City win slashes the gap to four points, which looks much more achievable. A Liverpool win extends it to an unattainable-looking ten. It’s not just that this is a six-pointer coming on the stroke of the New Year, it looks like a title-make-or-breaker.
City have suffered from Fernandinho’s injury, which highlighted the lack of depth in that position, and individual defenders across the back-line have also hit poor runs of form at similar times. It’s shown that Guardiola’s team are mortal, but the same could happen to Liverpool just as easily.
They may also suffer from luck starting to turn against them.
Alisson is, put simply, saving an extraordinary amount of shots this season. He has a save percentage rate of 84.9 per cent, which is astonishing. The next-best rate is Hugo Lloris with 74.6 per cent.
In expected goals terms, Alisson is saving just over 48 per cent of the expected goals he faces. It’s a rate that nobody comes close to. Wojciech Szczesny is one of the closest candidates, having saved just over 36 per cent of the expected goals he’s faced for Juventus in Serie A during the calendar year.
Manchester City v Liverpool Preview, Betting Tips And Enhanced Odds
When an individual is so far ahead of the rest of the pack, it either means that they’re god levels of good, or that they’re getting a little bit of the rub of the green. The 7.53 expected goals that Alisson’s saved could be the difference between where they are and where City are.
If his save levels start to creep back towards expected, then it could go some of the way to reigning Liverpool back in. And if it could start on Thursday night then, for City, even better.
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