By the time Manchester City and Liverpool kick off at Eastlands on Sunday (10 a.m., Sportsnet World), City, the reigning Premier League champions, could be 10 points adrift of current leaders Manchester United while Liverpool, in seventh place coming into the weekend, may well find themselves six points back of Arsenal, nine in arrears of Everton and 10 behind Tottenham Hotspur and the final Champions League spot.
It’s only the start of February, but matches in England’s top flight are starting to take on some extra meaning as the table sorts itself out and the 20 clubs in the competition weigh their start-of-the-season expectations against the reality of their positions. And this contest is no exception.
A 10-point gap between United and themselves would do City no good in their bid to retain the title, nor would a similar chasm between the Champions League places and Liverpool as the schedule enters its final third. What we have, as a result, is the first must-win match of the season.
For City, the hosts, victory is tied to their ability to keep things tidy in the defensive third. They have kept six clean sheets on the bounce coming into the match (their best shutout streak in 14 years), although it must be said only one of them (Arsenal) came against an opponent in the top nine.
They’ve been relying on the improved defensive performances because, quite simply, they haven’t been good enough in attack since the end of 2012. Only once this calendar year have they scored more than two goals in the Premier League, and forwards Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero managed just a single goal between them in January.
Not exactly the sort of output that wins championships, and with Mario Balotelli having been sold to AC Milan during the week, manager Roberto Mancini has one less attacking option in his stable.
On the other side of the ball, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers bolstered his forward line during the January transfer through the signing of Daniel Sturridge from Chelesa. Sturridge, 23, has scored twice in the three Premier League matches he’s played for the Reds so far, and looks to have formed a good understanding with Luis Suarez, whose 17 goals have him second in the scoring race to United’s Robin van Persie.
The problem with Liverpool is that they’ve been neither bad nor good enough to be of much relevance this season. Where one week they’ll hammer Norwich 5-0 at Anfield, the next they’ll be toppled 3-2 by Oldham in the FA Cup.
They’ve also been forced, perhaps because of the excesses of the previous regime, to undergo a youth movement a few years too soon.
Andre Wisdom, while a good right-back at 19, isn’t exactly a player you’d say is Champions League quality at this point. Nor is 19-year-old midfielder Suso, 20-year-old midfielder Jonjo Shelvey, 21-year-old striker Fabio Borini or 18-year-old winger Raheem Sterling, who has probably been the brightest of the lot.
If Rodgers is honest with himself, he’ll admit not one of those five players would come anywhere near the starting lineups of the four Premier League sides currently in the Champions League positions.
Not that he, himself, was responsible for the big-money acquisitions of Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll, none of whom are likely to pan out at Anfield. But he is paying for the club’s previous overindulgence with an enforced austerity he probably didn’t expect when he joined up from Swansea during the summer.
That said, Liverpool have been at their best this season when they’ve gone up against what, on paper, would seem to be superior opposition. Their matches against United have been close; they picked up a point at Chelsea in November and they played Manchester City to a 2-2 draw when they hosted Sunday’s opposition back in August.
But a draw on Sunday will do neither them nor City any good. Victory is the only worthwhile result in this one, and for the side that doesn’t get it, they can pretty much kiss their pre-season objectives goodbye.