After what seems like forever, Liverpool have had a whole week between two games, and the break couldn’t have come at a better time than in the lead-up to a game against Manchester City, who have made a mockery of the Premier League this season.
City have only dropped points twice this season but come into this game having not won at Anfield since 2003. For Jurgen Klopp’s Reds, it has been an eventful week with a dream Virgil van Dijk debut knocking out Everton, followed by Philippe Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona.
Liverpool come into this game unbeaten in 17 across competitions, and the Reds face the most unenviable task in the Premier League if they are to stretch their unbeaten run.
Mo Salah, Alberto Moreno and Daniel Sturridge were back in training this week, with Jordan Henderson and Nathaniel Clyne the only long-term absentees for the Reds.
Gabriel Jesus will miss out for City, but depth is the least of the concerns in the City ranks at the moment.
Here are some key individual battles that will decide the outcome of the game.
EMRE CAN v KEVIN DE BRUYNE
There might have been a debate a week ago, but with the events of the last week, it has now become hard to argue that De Bruyne isn’t the best playmaker in the Premier League.
He’s had an unbelievable season so far and is only going from strength to strength. He has 6 goals and 9 assists in the Premier League this season, but that doesn’t begin to describe the impact he has had on the City side.
The Reds know that if they provide De Bruyne the space to pick out a pass, he will hurt them. The responsibility to shackle De Bruyne will lie on the shoulders of Can, in the continued absence of Henderson.
Emre Can has split opinion with his performances this season, and rightly so, but over the festive period, he put in a massive shift for the side, playing the most minutes in the last month among the Liverpool players.
Towards the end of that period, in games against Leicester and Burnley, he covered massive distances and the intensity was there from the first minute to last.
The big German will know that he cannot afford even a moment’s rest on Sunday evening. Can’s work will be made difficult by the interchangeability of the City attackers. De Bruyne will drift out wide, but Can cannot afford to track him out wide because someone else would have taken the space vacated by De Bruyne’s run.
It will be important for Emre Can to stay disciplined and control spaces, allowing De Bruyne lesser room to manoeuvre. That way, he will be able to shackle the Belgian to an extent.
MO SALAH v FABIAN DELPH
Salah has had a two good week since his brace won the Reds the game against Leicester in the last game of 2017. Salah, like the rest of this team, will not have happy memories of facing City, after events at the Etihad Stadium earlier this season.
Salah was guilty of missing a couple of gilt-edged chances before Sadio Mane was sent off on that day. The result may not have been any different had those gone in, but those missed opportunities meant that the Reds were left to rue their worst loss in a long time.
But in recent months, finding the net has not been as big an issue. The Egyptian has 23 goals this season, and with 11 more goals in the second half of the season, he will overtake the number of goals Fernando Torres scored in his first season at Anfield.
In Delph, Pep Guardiola has found an able lieutenant to take the place of the injured Benjamin Mendy, who ripped Liverpool to shreds earlier this season. But the Englishman has shown that he has the potential to make an error or two, as he showed in the game against Manchester United last month.
Liverpool’s attacking route will not be too complicated. City play a high defensive line, and they will look to use the pace of Sadio Mane and Salah at every given opportunity. Delph not being a left-back, Salah could use his lack of positional awareness while making those runs.
The timing of Salah’s runs will be crucial because when he gets a clear route in behind a defence, there are very few players in the world who can stop him.
VIRGIL VAN DIJK v SERGIO AGUERO
van Dijk comes into the game on the back of a Merseyside Derby that he made his own with a late winner at the Kop End, on his debut for the club.
As far as Premier League debuts go, they don’t come any harder than having to face a striker of the pedigree of Aguero. Aguero doesn’t yet have a goal at Anfield, compared to scoring at least once every time he has faced the Reds at the Etihad.
Aguero has the Most Premier League goals in head-to-heads between the ‘Big Six’ since August 2011, having scored 35 goals in 53 games. The man for the big occasion, indeed.
For van Dijk, the evening will once again be as much about his own performance as it will be about how he can bring his defensive partners along with him.
Joel Matip will, in all likelihood, start alongside him at the back, and the Cameroonian has not had the best season individually.
Liverpool need all 4 at the back, and the goalkeeper, to be on the same page because of the rounded threat that City do carry.
5 good individual performances will have to be backed up by them being a cohesive unit, and for that, the Reds need a leader at the back. van Dijk showed in the derby that he is ready to take up that mantle, visibly berating Loris Karius and Matip more than once.
It promises to be a cracker under the lights at Anfield, and for the Reds, it is an opportunity to inflict more damage on the best team in the land, in what has been City’s graveyard for 15 years now.