JURGEN Klopp faces his sternest test yet as manager of Liverpool. His side travels to English Premier League leaders Manchester City today.
The clash at the Etihad enjoys the top billing of this weekend’s fixtures and so it should. This tie has the ingredients of an explosive encounter that will most likely make the Manchester derby look like a schoolkids’ knock-around.
For different reasons the clubs will be as keen as each other to emerge with a win and with the key motivational factor being a consolidation in the standings.
City actually lost ground to their nearest rivals when they were held to goalless draw against bottom side Aston Villa last time out.
Liverpool fared even worse though, crashing to an unlikely home defeat against Crystal Palace – a result that has left them languishing in 10th place.
And when you consider that Leicester, West Ham, Crystal Palace and the old enemy Everton are ahead of them on the table, one can only begin to imagine how painful it must be for the Anfield crowd to cast even a sideways glance at the standings.
But that’s not all that Klopp will have to contend with. His squad has been ravaged by injuries. Danny Ings, Joe Gomez and Mamadou Sakho are sidelined into the New Year, while young Jordan Rossiter is also out through injury, albeit for a shorter period.
The German coach is being hailed as the Reds’ savour in most sections of the Kop and he has certainly altered the dynamics at Anfield since he arrived last month.
He has managed to do this on more than just one front, given the expectations the club now has, his larger-than-life personality and a football philosophy of pressing high up field and attacking ruthlessly from the flanks. There have been signs that his work in training is beginning to shine through on match day, albeit with still a long way to go.
Notwithstanding this, Klopp will have whole-heartedly welcomed the news that Daniel Sturridge, James Milner and Jordan Ibe were back in training and should be in line for a recall to action against City.
But even a Liverpool outfit stacked with a fully-fit squad would find it difficult to go to the Etihad and leave with three points.
Even more alarming for Mr Klopp and his team are reports that Sergio Aguero, among the best three players in the world – and arguably the most lethal striker of all – has himself returned to training and could feature against the Reds.
Add to that the possible return from injury of silky smooth midfielder and master technician in attack David Silva, and Liverpool would do well to exit Manchester with a draw.
The threat of the once mighty Reds getting torn apart by a Citizens side that has clearly shown this term they have the capacity to mix it with Europe’s best, is very real.
Klopp might find solace in the fact that City can be rather wasteful at times. Indeed, on an off-day Manuel Pellegrini’s side look as ordinary as they come.
Yet, if they hit their stride and perform like how they did in Aguero’s last match for them, they look like they’re from another planet – such is their prowess.
In that game against Newcastle, Aguero got five goals all on his own.
In the early kick-off today, Watford are at home to Manchester United. This game has the potential to light up the return of league action following the international break.
Not many will give Watford a chance of salvaging an iota from the visit of Louis Van Gaal’s highly paid stars – an assemblage drawn from around the globe.
Yet in spite of this, an upset cannot entirely be ruled out. Yes, Man United will start as overwhelming favourites to win and almost everything else points to such an outcome. However, the Red Devils will under-estimate Quique Sanchez Flores’ side at their own peril.
There is a growing notion that there are no easy games in the EPL these days. And as much as this match looks like a foregone conclusion for Man United, Watford could yet spring a surprise.
Having said that, Man United should come away with a win.
Jamie Vardy could match Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of 10 league goals in a row if he gets on the scoresheet when Leicester travel to Newcastle United. The England international has nine on the trot and could make it 10 to equal the record the Dutch striker set in 2003.
Vardy has been the mainstay in Leicester’s outstanding start to the season. They were promoted in the summer and are now third on the log – just one point off Man City and Arsenal, who are tied on 26 points.
Fifth-placed Tottenham are at home to sixth-placed West Ham in a London derby on Monday. This match has red-card written all over it, and it could feature a couple of goals too. Spurs, I think, will get both of them as they continue their good run of form. They are unbeaten since the opening day of the season.
That is some achievement by any standards. And so too it would be if Liverpool could somehow muster a spectacular win at Etihad.
It would do Klopp and his team wonders. But then again, this league is not made for dreamers.
Shaun’s Picks of the Week
Watford vs Man United2-2
Man City vs Liverpool2-1
Newcastle vs Leicester1-2
Tottenham vs West Ham2-0