BETWEEN them Manchester City and Liverpool have played 6660 minutes of Premier League football this season, scoring 187 goals and keeping 42 clean sheets. They’ve been so far ahead of the rest strong binoculars are required to look back on a battle for fourth. They each continue to break new ground.
And now it comes down to this, just one game remaining apiece, both at home and both to Midlands clubs who have very little to play for. Nine times out of ten both of these extraordinary creations will prevail just so long as nerves are kept at bay, and they do what they do. This makes City’s single point advantage and superior goal difference colossal in the circumstances.
Yet that ten per cent chance of failure is putting City fans on edge this week, especially as a defensive crisis has struck at the worst possible moment. Last weekend, with a not-fully-fit Aymeric Laporte and a reimagined Fernandinho at the back it was panic stations every time West Ham made conventional inroads into the final third and to put into perspective how much John Stones and Ruben Dias have been missed, consider this. Last term, the duo played 29 games together across all competitions. City conceded only 13 times.
It is a defensive vulnerability all the more troubling given that Villa have recently rediscovered the attacking adventure that accompanied Steven Gerrard’s honeymoon period. In that regard, the fact that the visitors have nothing riding on this becomes a positive, not a downside, because why not have a go? Why not roll the dice?
In their last six games, Villa have averaged 14.1 shots per 90, a sizable increase on their seasonal average as a whole and this front-foot approach has benefited Ollie Watkins most of all. The 26-year-old has bagged four in seven and his clever movement may well evoke that of Jarrod Bowen last Sunday, a virtuoso display that led to two goals scored.
More so, the possibility of the Villans quickly rendering the Etihad silent should not be discounted. Throughout their mini-revival they have picked up a welcome habit of scoring first and scoring early.
If that scenario fills Blues with dread as they seek to win their fourth league crown in five years, it’s hardly surprising to learn that the encouraging news far outweighs the bad. Villa are stranded in 14th for several good reasons, not least an inability to retain leads. They have failed to win just shy of a third of matches where they have gone in front. Should they concede first, only four teams have accrued fewer points from a losing position in 2021/22.
Furthermore, their record against the top six this term is poor to abysmal, losing nine of 11, the only points gained courtesy of a brace of fixtures against a poor to abysmal Manchester United. From all 11 they have managed to score a meagre eight times.
City, by way of comparison, may be tremulous when faced with breaking forwards at present but at the other end they remain as prolific and imperious as always. In their last five outings, Pep Guardiola’s men have scored 4.2 goals-per-game, all of them pressurised and must-win contests.
Thirty-odd miles down the M62 at Anfield meanwhile, Liverpool will be desperate to make it a remarkable 51 league points from a possible 57 on home soil for the season in a game that mirrors their climax to 2018/19. Back then the Reds needed to beat Wolves on Merseyside and hope that City slipped up at Brighton and Jurgen Klopp’s side fulfilled what was in their own hands, comfortably dispensing with their opponents in a controlled manner. It’s hard not to imagine a similar scenario playing out this weekend.
That gut-instinct is not simply founded on Liverpool’s phenomenal return this season either, that has seen them lose only once and fail to score only once. Nor is it due to the embedded patience and entrenched belief that are prominent features of Klopp’s quadruple-chasing collective.
When revisiting 2019 we find that Wolves were bang up for it that afternoon, dead set on ending their campaign on a high but can the same mentality be attributed to Bruno Lage’s current incarnation? In their last four fixtures, a defence that has been widely praised for its outstanding parsimony has been breached 11 times and in at least a couple of games lately it has felt like some players already have one eye on the loungers.
Still, it would be wrong to cast this as a straightforward affair, as Liverpool – like City – have an Achilles heel to deal with on Sunday, theirs in the form of a looming Champions League final acting as a distraction. Nine changes were implemented on the south coast on Tuesday evening as Klopp sought to ensure as many as possible of his strongest XI are fit, fresh and available for Paris. And though we will very likely see some key figures reintroduced against Wolves – Thiago being one, Luis Diaz another – it will still amount to a ‘weakened’ side.