Weekend focus, English Premier League: Liverpool vs. Manchester City

steven gerrard
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When and where: Sunday, 11:00 a.m. Eastern, Anfield, Liverpool

Why this match matters: Liverpool got off to a horrific start last weekend, and with Manchester City and Arsenal occupying the second and third spots on their fixture list, the West Brom match was the one where they needed to get points. One bad result won’t derail a season, and if given their fixture list, it will be understandable if Liverpool start with three straight losses, though supporters are unlikely to be as sanguine about seeing a “3” in the loss column. Expect some premature, apocalyptic speculation if Brendan Rodgers can’t get a result before Arsenal leaves Anfield on Sept. 2.

How they’ve fared: Manchester City got a scare from Southampton on Sunday, a 3-2 win that some saw as a sign of weakness. More readily, it was a championship team showing they can respond respond to adversity, even if such dramatics are becoming an nerve-racking modus operandi. Liverpool was hit by a Zoltan Gera thunderbolt, saw a man sent off, and lost at West Brom on Saturday, 3-0.

Who’s in, who’s out: Sergio Aguero is out a month after hurting his right knee early against the Saints, while it’s unclear when Gareth Barry will return in the middle. In their spots, Edin Dzeko and Jack Rodwell are likely starters. Liverpool will be without Daniel Agger, suspended after picking up a red card on Saturday, as well as left back Jose Enrique, out with a knee injury. Jamie Carragher will try to quiet whispers Sebastian Coates should start, and while Glen Johnson covers for Enrique at left back, Martin Kelly moves into the starting XI.

Likely formations: Liverpool will play a 4-2-3-1 that will function as a 4-3-3. Manchester City will start a 4-4-2 with their wide midfielders playing high as wingers.

What Liverpool needs to do …

To stop City at one endSamir Nasri was City’s key on Sunday. He’ll need to be contained, though speaking more broadly, stopping City’s creators (Nasri and David Silva) will be Liverpool’s number one priority, especially given Aguero’s absence. Doing most of their damage through the middle, Nasri and Silva will demand strong days in defense from Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen, with Liverpool’s other midfielder (Lucas Leiva) left the guard the space Carlos Tevez will hope to exploit. If Liverpool merely relies on Leiva to patrol that area, City will have little trouble picking apart their Martin Sktrel-Carragher-dependent defense.

Possession may also be key. If Liverpool’s successful at containing Nasri and Silva (not giving them opportunities like the one that led to Tevez’s Saturday goal), Yaya Touré will take over. It’s City’s standard tactic: Wait until the hour-mark, then make Touré into an attacking midfielder. At that point, Liverpool’s best options will be (a) if leading, get numbers behind the ball, bringing Jonjo Shelvey on for Stewart Downing to reinforce the midfield, or (b) if tied, rely on their possession game to keep the ball away from City while trying to exploit Touré’s more advanced positioning.

And beat City, at the other: Their only proven goalscoring threats are Luis Suarez and Steve Gerrard, bad news on a number of levels. Gerrard hasn’t been that threatening for some time (hat tricks against Everton not withstanding), and Suarez has failed to score in his two Premier League appearances against Manchester City.

Liverpool’s best option might be a tangent of plan (b), above: Be patient with the ball, even if that involves some negative play, with the goals of keeping the ball away from City and creating some weaknesses (especially down the flanks, where Silva and, to a lesser extent, Nasri may not offer the needed support). Even if they can’t get Suarez into advantageous positions, they could create a match where Andy Carroll (quite a neat piece to have coming off the bench) could be influential in the last half hour.

What City needs to do …

To stop Liverpool on one end: If Jack Rodwell (and Yaya Touré) can help cut off access to Suarez while Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott keep Liverpool’s main threat close, Manchester City should be fine. Their defense is more than capable of freezing Suarez out, leaving Gerrard, Fabio Borini and Downing to provide goals.

Borini’s the biggest threat, but despite success in Italy, he’s yet to show he’s a productive Premier League scorer (even if that will likely come). Downing hasn’t scored a Premier League goal in 15 months, leaving Gerrard to summon the old Stevie G if Liverpool’s to find a complement for Suarez.

And beat Liverpool, at the other: Roberto Mancini has to figure Liverpool will be reinforce through the middle, particularly as the midfield tries to prevent Skrtel and Carragher from being exposed. That will leave room down the flanks, especially on the right, where Borini will be tasked with helping protect Johnson. If that happens, City right back Pablo Zabaleta could be a difference maker, combining with Nasri and Tevez to get behind the left side of Liverpool’s defense and work the ball back for Dzeko (and Tevez).

How it might play out: Liverpool may start conservatively, particularly after last weekend’s result. If they can control the tempo and keep the match even through its first act, the Reds can start focusing on how to steal a winner.

At least, that’s what the thinking may be. It’s not exactly what you expect from the home side, but most home sides aren’t going up against Manchester City.

Rodgers should have mild success, particularly at Anfield, but Liverpool’s unlikely to contain City once they bring Touré forward and start really chasing three points. Whether it’s Touré to Mario Balotelli (off the bench) or a Carroll header, this match looks most likely to be decided by a late winner, and although City hasn’t won at Anfield since 2003, a lot has changed around Liverpool and Manchester since Nicolas Anelka was posting doubles for the Citizens.

City has to be considered slight favorites. Look for a 1-0.