Jürgen Klopp versus Pep Guardiola. Liverpool against Manchester City. Second taking on third. Just a point separates these two sides, but Chelsea hold a six-point advantage over Liverpool and a seven-point lead over Manchester City. At the halfway stage of the Premier League season, neither side can afford to drop further behind if challenging Antonio Conte’s league leaders is to remain a realistic ambition.
This represents quite the test for both teams, but Liverpool enter the game as equals considering the way the season has progressed so far. It's been pointed out this week that Liverpool rank first for goals, shots, shots on target, shooting accuracy, passes, and touches in the Premier League this season. Guardiola will not underestimate such an opponent.
Liverpool have generally excelled in big games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspur. 11 points from a possible 15 is impressive, but it's also a continuation of an impressive league record against the top six and in Merseyside derbies in the Klopp era. Liverpool have lost only once, against a Manchester United side inspired by David de Gea in January, in these games since Klopp took over in October 2015.
Clyne, Lovren, Klavan, Milner
Lallana, Henderson, Wijnaldum
Mané, Sturridge, Firmino
Joël Matip and Philippe Coutinho are ruled out due to ankle injuries, and the key duo are set to miss the trip Sunderland. Ragnar Klavan will continue his partnership with Dejan Lovren in central defence, and Roberto Firmino will keep his place as a left-sided attacker for the next two games. Klopp is likely to stick with the same starting eleven against Stoke City with Emre Can and Daniel Sturridge coming in against Sunderland. That would give Georginio Wijnaldum and Divock Origi a break as well as freshen up the starting eleven, but Sturridge could be an option against his former club.
Sergio Agüero has served his four-match domestic ban and is almost certain to return to the starting eleven. Ilkay Gündogan is out for the remainder of the season, Vincent Kompany’s injury hell continues, and John Stones suffered a knee injury against Hull City on Boxing Day. David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne will supply the craft to support Agüero, and Raheem Sterling should start alongside them.
Sterling has started the last three games and played the full ninety minutes in each one. The former Liverpool star is playing well—as he did at the start of the season—with three assists and a goal over this period. He has always struggled against Liverpool since leaving in 2015’s summer transfer window, but the 21-year-old will provide a threat on the counter. There could be a lively duel with converted left back James Milner, who will be hoping to produce another solid display.
Pep Guardiola will decide whether to go with a back three or a back four, but the visitors have looked better with four in defence. Liverpool have won the last three league games against Manchester City at Anfield and secured a stunning 4-1 win at the Etihad last November. Guardiola, though, will be wary after defeats against Tottenham, Chelsea, and Leicester City. His side couldn't maintain defensive discipline nor cope with rapid attacks.
Liverpool's defensive problems are well-documented and sometimes exaggerated, but the attacking talent that Guardiola can call upon should be able to cause the home side numerous problems between the lines and in one-on-one situations. Liverpool's advanced fullbacks will need to be mindful of space in behind on the counter attack, but Liverpool playing on the front foot will presumably push the likes of Sterling into more defensive positions.
In the absence of Matip, Ragnar Klavan will have an important role to play. Although Dejan Lovren is ahead in the pecking order, it is the 31-year-old who is the calmer customer of the two. Marshalling a striker like Agüero is no easy task, especially after a self-enforced winter break. Liverpool, however, can field a sharp and hungry Sturridge in attack or the in-form Origi to trouble an ageing and unimpressive defensive unit.
The last Premier League game of 2016 is set to be an entertaining one, but for Klopp and his players, the power of Anfield could help Liverpool enter 2017 in fine fashion.
Kickoff is set for 5.30PM GMT/12.30PM EST tomorrow on BT Sport 1/HD in the UK and NBC in the US. Elsewhere, Optus Sport in Australia, TSN 4 in Canada, Star Sports Select HD1 in India, SuperSport 3 Africa in Kenya, Astro Supersport 3 in Malaysia, and 102 (HD) mio Stadium in Singapore are carrying the match. You can find full listings at LivesoccerTV.
We'll be keeping you updated with all the buildup to the game, including team news as it's released, our live matchday thread and post-match recaps from The Liverpool Offside staff. If you want to join the discussion, sign up for an SB Nation account to have your say on all the action as it happens.