Steven Gerrard already has a role model to help Liverpool and Man City and Pep Guardiola find out

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First and foremost, Liverpool must beat Wolves on Sunday. It is the Reds who have the toughest game of the two title contenders, coming up against a side that have been in European contention for much of the season.

Ahead of their meeting with Burnley on Thursday, Manchester City’s opponents Aston Villa find themselves 14th. But Steven Gerrard’s men will have to get something from the Etihad if his former club are to win the Premier League.

City have only dropped points at home four times during the season. Two of them were against the top four at Liverpool (2-2) and Tottenham Hotspur (2-3).

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But, encouraging for the Reds, they also slipped against Southampton (0-0) and Crystal Palace (0-2) in the fall. So how did the Saints and Eagles do?

Starting with Southampton, Ralph Hasenhüttl felt their 4-2-2-2 form worked “fantastically” against City because “it’s difficult for any team trying to play through”. Pep Guardiola lamented his side’s lack of ‘comfort’ and precision in the preparation phase, but that may just be a testament to Southampton’s set-up out of possession.

That’s not to say they frustrated their hosts by simply sitting in the back of a block. No, Hasenhüttl emphasized that his “leading players” were pressing City, aware that they could choose incisive passes if they had time on the ball. The Austrian demanded bravery for the ball but also ‘worked really hard’ to ensure his side were calm when they won it. City’s opponents so often rush the first pass after winning the ball, giving it away immediately and inviting another wave of energy-guzzling pressure. It is important not to seize the opportunity that presents itself, however understandable it may be.

Remarkably, City were unable to shoot the target until the 90th minute of this game. They hit 1.1 xG to Southampton’s 0.4, but overall stalled as a creative force. Their xG per shot was only 0.07.

And they could easily have lost. Jon Moss awarded a penalty and showed a red card when Kyle Walker knocked down Adam Armstrong, only to later overturn both decisions after consulting the pitchside monitor. Moss saw that Walker had managed to get his leg in front of Armstrong and so ruled no foul, but there was also no contact with the ball from the right-back. Although it was an honest challenge, he may have been lucky enough to avoid kicking.

But City were reduced to 10 men when they faced Palace in late October. Aymeric Laporte was dismissed for denying a goal-scoring opportunity when Wilfied Zaha kicked in from 30 yards and he won. Patrick Vieira admitted ‘people may think it was tough’ but stressed teams needed to make decisions in their favor to stand a chance against City.

And match-of-the-day specialist Ian Wright felt Palace “earned their chance in the way they were playing”. Like Southampton, they were ‘compact’ in form and, as Guardiola noted, ‘defended the gaps’ in the half-spaces and between the lines where City are most dangerous.

But again they recognized the need to ‘get into City’s faces’ and keep them out of action, to paraphrase Zaha, who incidentally thrived in a rarely seen central role. Obviously, the red card made their lives considerably easier, but Wright suspects Palace could have gotten a result even against 11 men depending on their approach.

City dominated the ball despite being shorthanded, finishing the game with 68% possession, but managed just three shots on target and 1.1 xG, like their visitors.

Both teams would also earn draws against the defending champions at home, although these were more conventional performances with their backs to the wall, hanging on for dear life for long stretches. Beyond courage and composure, luck is essential to beating perhaps the strongest team in Premier League history and, in truth, they can be virtually unstoppable. if they are in good shape.

Hasenhüttl used RB Leipzig’s game plan against City in the Champions League as the basis of his strategy, but with some tweaks to counter “what went wrong”. Now, Gerrard will surely look back on those games as he seeks to craft what might be the most poetic end to a campaign the league has ever seen.


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