The injury crisis that prompted Manuel Pellegrini to field a much-weakened team in the FA Cup at Chelsea last Sunday has not gone away. Manchester City are still without Kevin De Bruyne, Wilfried Bony, Fabian Delph, Samir Nasri and Jesus Navas, although Bacary Sagna is back and played a full part in the impressive Champions League victory over Dynamo Kyiv on Wednesday.
Liverpool are also severely depleted, afflicted still by the spate of hamstring problems that hit last month. Martin Skrtel, Joe Allen, Joe Gomez and Danny Ings are all out, while Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana are doubts. Kolo Toure was on the bench for the victory over Augsburg, perhaps rested for Sunday’s game given Liverpool’s shortfall at centre-back. Lucas and Mamadou Sakho started in the centre of defence on Thursday.
City’s performance in winning away to Dynamo Kyiv on Wednesday was as good as anything they have produced since the victory away to Sevilla in November, but they preceded that with three successive defeats: the reverses against Leicester City and Tottenham in the league and then the hammering at Chelsea with a much-weakened side in the FA Cup.
Liverpool are hardly more consistent. They had most of the game in beating Augsburg in the Europa League on Thursday but looked oddly toothless, as though they’d used up all their goals in hammering Aston Villa in the league the week before. Letting a 2-0 lead slip at home against Sunderland and the FA Cup defeat to West ham suggests how vulnerable they can be
It’s not just that City have lost 11 games this season, it’s been the manner of some defeats. They have capitulated at Tottenham and at home to Leicester and Liverpool. That 4-1 defeat at the Etihad in November suggested fundamental problems at City and also hinted at a bright future of Liverpool. Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino both excelled and City seemingly unable to cope generally with Liverpool’s pace and movement.
THE TOURE CONUNDRUM
Could it be that Manuel Pellegrini has solved the Toure conundrum? The question all season has been how to harness the moments of brilliance of which he is still capable while somehow covering for the fact that his legs seem to have gone and he is unable to track or work up and down the pitch as he used to. The deployment of him as the deepest midfielder against Dynamo, as a largely static shield for the back four with licence to get forward on occasions both suited him and liberated Fernando, Fernandinho (in a right-sided role) and, to a lesser extent, Raheem Sterling to press, something they did with great ferocity. Not only that, but using Fernandinho on the right meant David Silva could return to a central position, creating the play and controlling the tempo in a way he can’t do so effectively when used on the flank.
THE COUTINHO FACTOR
In 18 league starts, Philippe Coutinho has scored five and set up five goals, but that underplays his contribution. They simply look a better team when he’s on the pitch. He gives them fluency and fluidity and gets the best out of his some-time international team-mate Firmino.
The likelihood is he’ll be used in a loose front three with Firmno and Daniel Sturridge, which should immediately test just how solid that new-look City midfield is. Coutinho is an expert at finding pockets of space: the question is whether Toure will just sit and let Fernando handle him, or whether the pair will play a more conventional zonal system. Fernando and Toure failed utterly to deal with the mobility of Liverpool in the game at the Etihad in October, Toure being replaced by Delph at half-time.
Lucas is a serviceable centre-back, but it seems likely Kolo Toure or, if fit, Dejan Lovren will come in for him if only so he can be moved into midfield. Jordan Henderson and Emre Can both have their roles, but Lucas’s positional discipline will be key if Liverpool are to stifle Silva. Amid all the talk of how well City pressed against Dynamo, it was his intelligence that made City tick as an attacking force.
Both teams are so inconsistent this season that it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions and both have returning players in Vincent Kompany and Daniel Sturridge who have begun to have a positive effect. City are probably deserved favourites at 2.30, but this feels like such an open game that the 3.20 available on Liverpool is surely more tempting.