No trophy will be lifted at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, but when the dust settles on this Premier League season, April 10 may well be remembered as its defining date.
On paper, Manchester City’s impending showdown with Liverpool is no more significant than any other ‘title-deciding’ fixture between the two leading teams that often surfaces towards the end of a Premier League season.
Both teams will still have another seven games to navigate and come full-time on Sunday, the largest the gap could be extended would be – if City were to win – a mere four points.
And yet – at the risk of tempting fate and beckoning the most underwhelming, dull 90 minutes imaginable – Sunday’s clash could determine the destiny of three different competitions and mark a pivotal chapter in a team’s ascent to legendary status within English football.
A league of their own
As has been the case for all but one of the last four seasons, City and Liverpool have once again effectively played in a league of their own.
The Reds sit a point off City, 13 clear of Chelsea in third. Liverpool and City are the only two sides in the league to have scored 70 or more goals and also boast the best defensive records with just 38 goals conceded between them.
It is a testament to the closeness of the two sides that City have just one more point than the Reds during that period, with 338 points racked up across just 144 games.
The nearest? Chelsea – the team initially tipped to break the pair’s monopoly this season – chasing shadows on 264 points, with Manchester United marginally behind on 257.
They are not just dominant in England. City and Liverpool are the best two teams in Europe, according to data provider Nielsen Gracenote’s Euro Club Index, which ranks sides across the continent.
With Liverpool recently overtaking German giant Bayern Munich in the rankings, “the gap between England’s best two teams has never been as small as it is now,” Gracenote said.
Yet clinching the league title – in what will be City’s fourth in five years or Liverpool’s second in three – could end up forming just one branch of an even greater, historic achievement.
On April 16, the two sides will meet in an FA Cup semifinal, with the victor returning to Wembley to face either Chelsea or Crystal Palace on May 14.
There is then the possibility that the pair could face each other again in the Stade de France in Paris two weeks later for the biggest game in club football, the Champions League final.
Should Liverpool and City see out quarterfinal first leg advantages over Benfica and Atletico Madrid respectively, they would not face each other in the semifinal due to being on opposite sides of the draw.
If City go on to clinch the league and FA Cup, May 28 could represent the chance to complete a historic treble. For all the accolades and tumbled records during coach Pep Guardiola’s time in Manchester, the Champions League remains an elusive prize for City.
After the pain of falling at the last hurdle to Chelsea in Porto last year, victory in Paris would be the crowning achievement of the Spaniard’s tenure. To do it as part of a treble – with arch rivals Manchester United the only other English team to achieve the feat – would cement a historic legacy.
For Liverpool and coach Jürgen Klopp, having already won the League Cup in February, an unprecedented quadruple remains entirely possible.
Stripped of the opportunity to savor a first league title in 30 years in front of their fans in 2020 as games were played to empty stadiums in the pandemic, besting City this year would offer the chance to make up for lost celebrations.
Unlike City, Liverpool are no strangers to European Cup glory with six victories, but winning a seventh alongside the three domestic trophies would lift them into unparalleled territory as the only English side to win all four.
‘Don’t be afraid to make mistakes’
The game’s outcome may rest on the performances of each club’s talismanic players, notably Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah and City’s Kevin De Bruyne.
Salah and De Bruyne have once again enjoyed stellar seasons, with both in the running to be crowned the Premier League’s player of the season for a second time.
Already boasting 20 goals, Salah looks set to finish the campaign as the league’s highest scorer for the third time in just five seasons on Merseyside – a haul made all the more impressive by the fact he trails only teammate Trent Alexander-Arnold for assists with 10.
Despite missing a number of early games through injury, De Bruyne has again been an integral cog in Guardiola’s City machine, scoring 10 and assisting three from midfield.
While Salah has scored just once in his last seven games, De Bruyne has weighed in with three goals in each of City’s last three matches and crucially scored the winner against Atletico Madrid in Tuesday’s Champions League quarterfinal first-leg tie.
“He is in the best moment of the season right now – he is sharp, quick and positive,” Guardiola told reporters after the Atletico win. “His influence in our game is massive.”
In an interview with City’s website last month, De Bruyne said it was important for him as a player not to be afraid to make mistakes.
“Sometimes, people will be scared to make a pass knowing the reaction outside. If people react to a bad pass, whatever,” said De Bruyne.
“Try to get the ball back again, try to do the same action or try something else. It doesn’t matter.
“I don’t care about pass completion. That’s not what I am here for. I am here to do what I am good at.”
However, for leading sports scientist Simon Brundish there can only be one choice for player of the season – the ever-present ‘Egyptian King.’
“If it’s not Salah, there’s something going on,” said Brundish, who makes no secret of his allegiances to Liverpool on social media. “I don’t think it should even be discussed.
“Despite his reputation as a greedy goalscorer, apart from creating the most chances of anybody, he sprints more than everybody else has, and he plays the most games of anybody in England.
“The metabolic cost of this guy is off the charts – he’s always available. He is the guy in the dressing room, he’s the one they look to.”
Paradoxically, Brundish believes it is the very trait that sets him apart that explains his recent dip in form – a fatigued Salah is “running on fumes.”
After an electric first-half of the season, Salah has scored just once since a brace in a 6-0 rout of Leeds at the end of February, and again cut a frustrated figure despite victory over Benfica in midweek.
“He does tend to have a dip in spring because his availability is so high, he never gets a break,” Brundish said.
“His dip is still the best forward in the league, but it’s a dip by his standards – it’s not his peak period.”
Still to sign a new deal at Anfield to extend his stay past next season, questions continue to swirl over Salah’s contract situation, yet Brundish has only one for Liverpool: “What are you doing?”
The sports scientist believes if the negotiations have stalled over a question of money, then paying up for the “best value” attacker in Europe is a no-brainer.
Collating the top 200 forwards in Europe – dividing transfer fee and wages by goals, assists, and expected goals [xG] created – Brundish calculated that Salah had cost Liverpool around £50,000 per goal or assist.
Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski was the next most economical on £68,000, with the other 198 totalling £100,000 or more.
“If you’ve had this much value from a lad, then perhaps even if he wanted more than market rate, he probably has earned it,” Brundish said.
‘Whoever wins probably wins the Champions League too’
Brundish believes the fate of the Champions League may well rest on the balance of Sunday’s game, an outcome that sits “on a knife edge.”
“Whoever wins is going to win the Premier League,” Brundish told CNN. “I would go as far as to say whoever wins probably wins the Champions League too.
“I’m not on board with ‘one will win one, one will win the other,’ I think it’s only psychology at play here.”
Neither manager shares Brundish’s conviction, at least not publicly.
Speaking after Tuesday’s victory over Benfica, Klopp said nothing would be decided by a win against “the best team in the world” on Sunday.
Guardiola went a step further following a recent league win at Burnley, saying that his side would need to win every remaining game of the season to secure the title.
“We have to feel the pressure that every game we are going to play where we lose, we are not going to win – we are out [of the title],” Guardiola said.
“We have to win eight games, otherwise we are not champions.”
Gracenote’s analysis predicts the result of Sunday’s game – if there is a winner – is likely to be decisive in the Premier League title race.
Victory for City would see their chances of winning the league soar from 61% to 86%, while a Liverpool win would make them new favorites, lifting their odds from 39% to 68%, says the data provider.