Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Manchester City

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  • Liverpool, at the top of the Premier League, has a four-point lead on Manchester City.
  • Manchester City hold matches in hand, having played 31 games (to Liverpool’s 33).
  • Liverpool have won nine Premier League games in a row.

A month of anticipation and a slip from previously league-leading Chelsea have set the stage for what should be the most important game of the Premier League season, but whereas a typical battle of titans would see one team adjust to the other’s approach, both Liverpool and Manchester City should prove unrelenting when the teams kick off Sunday at Anfield. The Citizens will view themselves as talented enough to impose their game on Liverpool, while the Reds’ flexibility and aggressive approach has proved profitable all season long.

Coverage begins tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN, with the match also available to stream live via NBC Sports Live Extra.

The match also takes place on the weekend English soccer observes 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy, one where 96 people in the Liverpool end of Hillsborough Stadium died during an FA Cup semifinal between the Reds and Nottingham Forest. Prematch ceremonies featuring Liverpool legends Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush as well as Manchester City icon Mike Summerbee will accompany a minute of silence, with the game starting seven minutes late to commemorate the moment the 1989 semifinal was stopped in Sheffield.

In the teams’ first meeting, Manchester City took a 2-1 Boxing Day win over Liverpool, with first half goals from Vincent Kompany and Álvaro Negredo pulling back Philippe Coutinho’s 24th minute opener. Since then, Liverpool’s only lost two games, dropping 2-1 results at Stamford Bridge (Dec. 29) and the Emirates (Feb. 16, FA Cup). The team’s last loss at home, its only one this season, came Sept. 27 against Southampton when the Saints became one of two teams to hold the Reds scoreless this season.

With the quality Manchester City has in attack, the Citizens won’t have to rely on a shutout to take points from Anfield. Between Sergio Agüero, Edin Dzeko, and Negredo, City have a combined 35 goals from its forwards (though Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge have combined for 49). The midfield of David Silva, Yaya Touré, Fernandinho, and Samir Nasri have accounted for 33 goals, with Touré’s 18 tallies pacing the league’s midfielders. While Liverpool’s 90 goals in 33 games puts them on track to set a Premier League record, Manchester City are capable of keeping up.

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That’s why the teams’ defenses could prove the difference. City’s has been much derided because of the presence of Martín Demchelis, a weakness that isn’t reflected in the numbers. The Citizens’ 29 goals allowed are second fewest in the league to Chelsea’s 24. Liverpool, on the other hand, has had to overcome a more suspect defense, one that has conceded 40 times this season.

Those goals are part of the reason why a draw may hurt Liverpool more than City. With the goal difference tiebreaker currently in the Citizens’ hands, a point at Anfield will leave the Sky Blues within a manageable four with two games in hand. A loss on Merseyside, however, means the Manchester City no longer controls title fate.

What they’re saying:

Brendan Rodgers, manager, Liverpool (from The Guardian): “If you become fearful, that’s the first class ticket to fail. So for us, and for me, it’s exciting. It’s the joy of going and playing. This is why we work. It’s nothing to be frightened of. Nothing to be frightened of! We’ve an army of supporters behind us who are incredible. We’ve got a team high in confidence and belief, knowing we can beat anyone.”

Manuel Pellegrini, manager, Manchester City (via Sky Sports): “Of course if you defend with 10 players near your box, you are not going to have space for the other team. But the most important thing about these two teams is they play attractive, offensive football. Both teams are very close for this.

“Both teams have scored a lot of goals during the season but if we are with Liverpool and Chelsea at the top of the table, it is because we also know how to defend.”

Prediction: When you go player-for-player, it’s hard not to favor Manchester City, but Liverpool has transcended those expectations all season, hinting there’s something about the team’s talent, approach, or execution that we’re missing. While few still doubt the team’s rightful place in the title race, Manchester City is still favored to win the league, meaning a lot of people still aren’t convinced the Reds are as good as their record.

To a certain extent, I’m part of that group, but it’s impossible to look beyond Liverpool’s home form. It’s difficult to look at a run that’s seen them go undefeated in league since the calendar turned. It’s hard to look at that +50 goal difference and say ‘this team isn’t quite on the same level.

While ‘this one could end 4-3’ has been the type of refrain we’ve heard throughout the week, both defenses should prove slightly more resilient in the face of this challenge. I see a 2-2, with enough chances to leave each side convinced they could have won.

 

“This game belongs to the players” Wenger downplays Guardiola success

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Arsene Wenger has stressed that Pep Guardiola has not changed the game of soccer over the last decade or so, maintaining that the players are the ones who make a team truly great.

Asked if Guardiola has “raised the bar” of managing in his time at the top, Wenger said, “No, because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe. You have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a short number of clubs.”

[ MORE: EFL Cup final preview ]

“We, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy but this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”

In fact, Wenger showed a twinge of jealousy at all the attention Guardiola is getting with the team blowing out the rest of the Premier League this season, referencing trophies in the recent past Arsenal has hoisted. “We are maybe underdogs but we have to believe in our quality. The history, the fact we have done it before, shows why not do it again?”

“At the end of the day, you have to be cool,” Wenger said, “because Manchester City is dominating the league in the head of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs than in the FA Cup semi-final [last season when Arsenal beat Man City].”

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

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MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

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Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly until recently, saying

“Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?” Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United.

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Sunday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.