By Phil Keidel
City’s ability to find extra goals from lesser lights like Navas might be the difference against the Reds. Clive Rose/Getty Images
Manchester City faced a must-win match against a league-leading side not too long ago.
Not two weeks later, the thought that Arsenal could run and hide from anyone is a joke.
City thrashed the North London side 6-3, and as the Boxing Day matches begin, Arsenal have lost their league lead on goal difference to “welcome back to relevance” Liverpool.
So here are City again, faced with another match in the friendly confines of the Etihad Stadium against a real title threat, saddled with the responsibility of keeping a contender honest.
Here are five tactical battles that will shape City’s clash with Liverpool.
Manuel Pellegrini’s XI
Pellegrini has to make a really hard call for his XI against Liverpool. Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
More than most football fans care to admit, Harry Redknapp had it right.
Erudite footie fans love to go on and on about formations—”you’re insane, 4-2-3-1 is so much more effective than 4-4-2″—but 99 times out of 100, faster/stronger/bigger beats slower/weaker/smaller.
Aberrations happen, but Wigan Athletic only beat Manchester City in an FA Cup final when City are in emotional and tactical disarray.
Where managers earn their money is when the margins are small and when the comparative talent of the sides in a given match is negligible.
City boss Manuel Pellegrini has a Gordian Knot to untie with reference to his attack plan against Liverpool.
If he stays with his preferred 4-4-2, Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo will be up top.
But if Dzeko’s lousy run against Fulham last weekend soured Pellegrini on the big Bosnian, the alternative is a 4-2-3-1 with Jesus Navas and Samir Nasri doing all they can to make up for the lack of a second striker to run with Negredo.
Pellegrini’s team sheet will be news in and of itself in this match.
Joe Hart vs. Simon Mignolet
Hart will need to make the ball behave against Liverpool. Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Manchester City’s success against Liverpool last season was due in large part to the benevolence of the Liverpool defense.
City drew twice with Liverpool in Premier League play last season. In each draw, Liverpool’s defenders essentially gifted City the equalizing goal.
At Anfield, Martin Skrtel hit a woeful back pass that former City striker Carlos Tevez gleefully converted into a point.
At the Etihad, Liverpool’s erstwhile keeper Pepe Reina was caught in no man’s land as Sergio Aguero chipped a Pythagorean wonder strike over him for the draw.
The way these teams score goals, the keeper who does not make the inexcusable mistake in this match is likely to leave with three points.
Midfield Trench Battles
Toure loves to create space for himself. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Manchester City have made their way this far in this Premier League season largely through their dominance in midfield.
Every decent Premier League side has at least one good striker, two or three solid defenders and a world-class keeper. But the midfield (see Manchester United for details) is where adequate Premier League sides are separated from really good ones.
Even after loaning Gareth Barry out, City have eight midfielders who would be named in almost any Premier League XI.
Against Liverpool, though, the marauding City midfield featuring Yaya Toure, David Silva and Fernandinho will have worthy opposition.
All at once, Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson have coalesced with Lucas Leiva to give Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling timely and efficient service.
The midfield that inflicts itself on this match will be the one that ultimately determines the outcome.
Luis Suarez vs. the Green Light City Have Posted at Right-Back
Clichy struggled mightily out of position against Fulham. Clive Rose/Getty Images
Manchester City have a real problem at right-back.
Pablo Zabaleta and Micah Richards are probably still out for City for the Liverpool match. Against Fulham, City put Gael Clichy (their normal left-back) in that spot. Fulham attacked Clichy without mercy and found their first goal through his defensive area.
Fulham is a relatively toothless offensive side. Liverpool, conversely, are trailing only City in goals scored in the Premier League this season. Liverpool striker Luis Suarez leads the Premier League with 19 goals, i.e. more than half the league’s sides have scored as teams.
Hmm. Do you think Suarez and Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers know that City are weak at right-back?
City vs. the Weight of Expectation
The blue wave is a real thing. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Manchester City’s home record is a thing of beauty.
City are a fat 8-0-0 through eight Premier League matches. At the Etihad, City have scored 35 times and conceded only five times. These are gamer-on-his-Xbox numbers.
That said, City have padded their home statistics against many woeful offensive sides. Neither Chelsea nor Liverpool have played City at the Etihad as yet.
Liverpool bring the league’s leading scorer in Luis Suarez and a formidable supporting cast to Manchester for this match.
Can City prove they are more than flat-track bullies against the second-leading scorers in the league?
City faithful will be looking for a goal onslaught when Liverpool come to the Etihad.
It is up to the Sky Blues to make sure they are the ones to provide it.