The Premier League has long been shaped by two teams at the top.
Manchester United and Arsenal emerged as bitter and blockbuster rivals during their decade-long duel for title supremacy and now two modern-day contenders could soon tread a similar path.
Tradition does not bind Manchester City and Liverpool together, but their almost-invincible qualities do attract these opposing forces.
This season’s first league meeting is scripted with plots and subplots, and the potential authors of Sunday’s clash forms our opening analysis of key protagonists for the Anfield showdown.
WHICH HERO WILL RISE?
The United-Arsenal rivalry was cast as a blood-and-guts thriller of action and reaction.
There isn’t the same thunder to City-Liverpool with ample respect shared on both sides, however, the talent and opposing methodologies on the sidelines make for enticing viewing beyond the title narrative.
We largely know how the two sides want to approach this game, City will aim for complete domination of possession in a necessary bid to reduce the gap to three points, the Reds meanwhile will likely re-employ an aggressive press to split the two teams apart by nine points.
What last season showed is that this fixture is a must-win contest and so while the collective plan is fairly clear, it’s down to the individuals to decide the game.
Draped in blue capes is Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero, donning red masks will be Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino.
Who wins? In interviews this week, De Bruyne echoed comments he made before the 2018 Champions League quarter-final tie at Anfield – the last time he played at the ground – in saying the atmosphere and City’s dreadful record there is a non-factor.
It certainly has been in the past, but to borrow a phrase from Jurgen Klopp about his team, the Belgian is a ‘mentality monster’. He’s created the most chances from open play in the Premier League this term and the intensity of Anfield could bring the best out of him.
It’s a ground which certainly emboldens Salah with the Egyptian scoring all five of his league goals this season at home, including two against Arsenal and the winner versus Tottenham.
Firmino is curiously without a goal in his last eight games across all competitions, although his importance is difficult to quantify. Energy, aggression and craft will win this game, all Firmino traits.
The Brazilian and Salah have though been mere sidekicks to Mane, the scorer of 27 goals in 2019. It’s not just the volume either, but the timing, too, with 20 of those strikes either Liverpool’s first (14) or last (six).
City are also his joint-second favourite opponent having scored five goals in 12 games in all competitions against them.
The Senegalese is the current Anfield hero, but his predecessor has mirrored form. Sterling has 29 goals this year and is garnering future Ballon d’Or attention. A raw talent at Liverpool, the 24-year-old has been refined by Pep Guardiola, taking his game to a new level since joining City.
He’s yet to score at Anfield since switching to blue in 2015, but after revealing his initial struggles on returning to the ground, he’s primed to end that drought.
One man who has no such problem scoring against Liverpool is Aguero. The Argentine has an absurd record against the traditional ‘big six’, plundering 44 times in 67 games, seven of which have arrived against the Reds.
All six represent the brawn of the fixture, but what about the brains?
KLOPP VS GUARDIOLA
Little separates City and Liverpool in all departments, but most of all in the technical areas.
It’s fair to say Klopp and Guardiola are the two best coaches in world football right now and as a result, they are each other’s greatest rival.
Their head-to-head record is locked with seven wins each and two draws stretching from their battles in Germany to England.
And heading into Sunday’s 17th contest between the pair, there is a tense undertow.
It began with Guardiola’s somewhat ambiguous comments regarding Liverpool or Mane “sometimes diving”.
Klopp responded by saying he didn’t want to “put oil on the fire” then chucked wood on instead with a sly dig of “I promise not to mention tactical fouls”.
He also asserted his counterpart is obsessed with Liverpool to which Guardiola countered by saying “he did not want to put oil on the fire”.
Of course, the Catalan was one of the first to congratulate Klopp on his team’s Champions League triumph so it’s not exactly Guardiola versus Jose Mourinho.
But the longer they contest the game’s biggest honours, the more intense they will become.
The evolution of their personal rivalry is matching that of the fixture as a whole.
All this context adds to a fixture which could go on to be era-defining.
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