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Liverpool vs. Man City: Burning questions on the season's first 'title decider'

ESPN FC's Stewart Robson gives his take on why the referee will take centre stage in this weekend's Premier League clash between Liverpool and Man City.

It is the biggest game of the Premier League season so far: Liverpool versus Manchester City, the top two, locked together on 19 points from seven games and both boasting unbeaten records.

A win for either team would be a huge psychological blow in the race for the title and mark them out as early favourites to finish on top. So will it be Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola, Mohamed Salah or Sergio Aguero, who make the difference at Anfield on Sunday? And what are the key factors that will decide the outcome of the game?

Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have faced each other on 14 previous occasions, with the Liverpool manager Klopp winning seven encounters.
The Premier League's two most exciting managers know how to score goals, setting up an intriguing match at Anfield.

The battle of the bosses: Klopp vs. Guardiola

Klopp and Guardiola have faced each other on 14 previous occasions, with the Liverpool manager Klopp winning seven encounters. Guardiola has won five, with two draws making up the numbers.

Klopp's statistics have been boosted significantly by three successive victories against Guardiola's City team already in 2018, and there is a real sense going into this weekend's game that the German has cracked the code when it comes to nullifying Guardiola's teams.

Under Klopp, Liverpool swarm their opponents in the attacking third and deny them time on the ball, a tactic that has repeatedly caused City problems. Guardiola will have spent hours attempting to devise a plan to swing the pendulum back in his favour against Klopp. For these reasons, the tactical battle will be an intriguing element of the game.

The strengths and weaknesses

Both teams can be irresistible going forward, with the respective goal threat of Liverpool and City the biggest weapon for both teams.

City put five past Liverpool at the Etihad last season -- albeit against a 10-man Liverpool following the dismissal of Sadio Mane -- but Klopp's team won 4-3 at Anfield in January before scoring three times without reply in the Champions League quarterfinal first-leg last season.

Defensively, both teams can be too open, but Liverpool have improved considerably in that department following the additions of goalkeeper Alisson and centre-half Virgil van Dijk.

Both sides have been able to exploit weaknesses down the flanks against each other, but these are two teams without glaring weaknesses. The end result is usually down to which team hits its stride quickest.

Which player will decide the game?

Virgil van Dijk, right, has transformed Liverpool's defence and given them a solid platform upon which to build attacks.
Van Dijk, right, has transformed Liverpool's defence, giving them a solid platform upon which to build attacks.

It's stating the obvious to suggest that the game will rest on whether Salah or Aguero scores the most goals. Both forwards are crucial to their respective teams, but the reality is that the key figures are further back in each side.

For Liverpool, van Dijk's presence is crucial. The £75 million centre-half gives his team solidity and organisation at the back. He can also dictate the tempo from his position at the heart of the defence. Simply put: If van Dijk plays well, Liverpool usually win.

For City, David Silva remains the man who makes them tick, particularly without the injured Kevin De Bruyne. Silva can pick holes in the Liverpool defence if he is allowed to glide unchecked between the midfield and attacking lines and seems the most likely architect of any City victory.

The players you don't notice

Call this the "James Milner factor." The likes of Salah, Aguero and Raheem Sterling may claim the spotlight, but the secret of both teams is the work done by those players who often go unnoticed.

Milner, who left City for Liverpool in 2015 to secure regular football, is in the form of his life at the age of 32, giving Klopp's team experience, reliability and tenacity in the heart of midfield. The former Leeds and Newcastle midfielder is never less than a 7/10 performer, his contribution rubbing off on the likes of Andy Robertson, Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, who are also key to Liverpool's sparkling start to the season.

For City, Fernandinho is the glue that holds it all together in the heart of the team. At 33, he remains a crucial figure. Fabian Delph has also become a key man at full-back, while Kyle Walker's energy and pace down the right flank is another huge part of City's game.

City's woeful record at Anfield

There are some things that just cannot be explained and City's results in Liverpool are an anomaly that hangs over the team whenever they make the short trip to the red half of Merseyside.

City have not won at Anfield since May 2003, losing 15 of their 21 trips to the stadium during the Premier League era. Last season, Guardiola's team suffered their first league defeat at Anfield and were also crushed 3-0 in the Champions League in front of The Kop.

So they will travel to Liverpool this weekend knowing that they must draw a line under their losing history at Anfield and find a way to banish the negative thoughts that come with such a dismal sequence of results.

Searching for goals: Mo Salah has yet to find his form this season. But will that be enough of a weakness for City to win at Anfield for the first time since 2003?
Searching for goals: Mo Salah has yet to find his form this season. But will that be enough of a weakness for City to win at Anfield for the first time since 2003?

Can Salah find his form?

Salah scored three goals in four games against Manchester City last season and his performances against Guardiola's team were some of his best of a stunning campaign. But the Egyptian has started slowly this season, scoring just three times so far, and he goes into Sunday's game without a goal in three matches.

It is hardly a barren run but when compared to Salah's output last season, it is perhaps a worry when placed alongside his below-par performances. Salah has yet to hit his stride and he was poor against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last week.

Liverpool need him firing on all cylinders against City if they are win.

The value of a top goalkeeper

There is an old adage that you cannot win a league title without a reliable goalkeeper. After struggling between the sticks with the unconvincing Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius, Liverpool finally sorted their keeper situation by signing Alisson Becker from Roma. The Brazil No. 1 has given Liverpool a genuinely commanding presence in goal.

Ederson, Alisson's understudy for Brazil, made a similar impact at City last season after arriving from Benfica to replace the erratic Claudio Bravo. A good goalkeeper gives a team confidence and a sense of security, and although both Alisson and Ederson take risks, they have both made their teams stronger by their presence.

So who will win?

Liverpool go into the game having lost their momentum on the back of three outings without a win. The Champions League defeat against Napoli in Italy on Wednesday, when they conceded in the 90th minute, may have undermined the team's morale. How Liverpool respond to that setback will be an interesting element to Sunday's game.

Despite going top of the league last weekend, Man City have also yet to hit the heights of last season, so they do not travel to Anfield in peerless form either.

It is a tough one to call, but with Salah struggling for goals and Liverpool without a win in three, City will believe they can end their Anfield hoodoo.

Prediction: Liverpool 1, Man City 2

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