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.

 

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.