MANCHESTER, England (AP) — When Manchester City and Liverpool last met in the Premier League, a matchup usually bulging with goals failed to live up to its billing as the most entertaining in English soccer.
A 0-0 draw at Anfield in October left a worldwide audience somewhat underwhelmed.
Expect a return to normal when the two meet again on Thursday with so much more riding on the result.
In the first meeting, it resembled two heavyweights sizing each other up and neither really throwing a punch. There was nothing between them in the standings — they were tied on points after seven games — and plenty of respect was shown on both sides.
Now it’s different with Liverpool leading second-place Tottenham by six points and City by seven. Liverpool is not only unbeaten and on a nine-match winning run, but is blowing away its rivals — evidenced by its two wins since Christmas: 4-0 over Newcastle and 5-1 over Arsenal.
City manager Pep Guardiola’s proclamation that if his team drops points it would leave the title race “finished” suggests the champions will go all out for a win at Etihad Stadium.
Liverpool, with its dynamic front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, is never more dangerous than on the counterattack.
So, it’s City going for broke against a Liverpool team looking to hit on the break. Something has to give.
“Our pride has been hurt over recent weeks but we have everything to play for. It depends on us,” said City captain Vincent Kompany, a player never afraid to build up matches and tell it like it is. “Every living soul that comes into the stadium has to be ready to fight.”
Guardiola has previously spoken of how Liverpool’s attackers “scare” him, and there’s a sense he struggles to set teams up against managerial counterpart Juergen Klopp. Klopp has won seven of his 15 meetings with Guardiola over the years, losing only once in seven while both have been in English soccer.
Dating back to before Klopp arrived in 2015, Liverpool has lost only one of its past 11 meetings with City, and that was a 5-0 defeat early last season after Mane was sent off in the first half.
Guardiola, not Klopp, has been the one tinkering with tactics heading into their matchups. In last year’s league game at Anfield, he played an extra midfielder in Ilkay Gundogan instead of a winger, Raheem Sterling, and it left the team lopsided. In October, he reined in his fullbacks and kept the central midfield compact and close to his wingers.
In a way, Guardiola went against his own unwavering belief in an attack-minded approach, showing he had learned his lessons from three straight losses to Liverpool toward the end of last season — two of which came in the Champions League quarterfinals.
In the second leg, City had to come back from a 3-0 deficit and Liverpool kept it tight before picking the hosts off, with Salah and Firmino scoring second-half goals at the Etihad.
Those will likely be Klopp’s tactics again, with Liverpool defender Andrew Robertson acknowledging City will “go full throttle into us.”
Guardiola knows the size of his team’s task, however, against an opponent on course to match Arsenal’s achievement in 2003-04 of going unbeaten in the Premier League season. Liverpool is seeking its first top-flight title since 1990, and its 19th overall.
“Maybe the best team in Europe or the world right now,” was how Guardiola described Liverpool after City’s 3-1 win at Southampton on Sunday, which came after a run of three losses in four games.
Klopp was just as effusive about City, saying it would be “one of the most difficult games you can play in the modern football world.”
“We felt that plenty of times. It’s a really strong football team with an outstanding manager,” Klopp said Wednesday. “The opponent is, for me, still the best team in the world. Only the points changed, not the preparation for the game.”
City might be able to call on midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, who missed the Southampton game because of a muscular problem but is “much better,” Guardiola said Wednesday.
Crucially, midfield anchorman Fernandinho is fit and available.
Liverpool midfielder James Milner is in contention to return after a minor injury.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80