SEPTEMBER 9 ― There’s no doubt about the identity of this weekend’s biggest game as Europe’s football leagues make a welcome return to action following the highly unwelcome international break.
In Saturday’s early kick off, two of the English Premier League’s early pace-setters go head to head as Manchester City welcome Liverpool to the Etihad Stadium.
The teams are level on seven points after their first three games, but it’s certainly fair to say that Liverpool’s start has been much more impressive than this weekend’s hosts.
City are rather fortunate to have claimed so many points, needing a winner deep inside injury time to defeat Bournemouth and a fairly late equaliser to claim a point at home against Everton.
And it’s not just the results that have provided cause for concern among Pep Guardiola’s team, who have failed to look convincing for long phases of all their games. So far, they don’t look to be any better than the team which failed to mount a serious title challenge last season.
It’s an entirely different scenario at Liverpool, who would now be sitting top of the table if they hadn’t dropped a point by conceding a last minute equaliser at Watford on the opening day of the season.
Since then, Jurgen Klopp’s men have roared into top gear by gaining three successive home wins, starting off with a fairly tepid 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace before disposing of Hoffenheim 4-2 to secure progression to the Champions League group stage and then hammering Arsenal 4-0.
With the strike force of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and summer signing Mohamed Salah firing on all cylinders ― scoring seven league goals between them in just three games ― Liverpool are looking like a very dangerous team and they will have been frustrated to see their progress halted by the international break.
Even more impressive is the fact that those early season results were achieved without their key player, Philippe Coutinho, who effectively went on strike in a failed attempt to secure himself a transfer to Barcelona.
At the start of the season, every Reds fan I knew was desperately hoping that Coutinho would stay because his loss would signal the certain demise of their title aspirations.
Yet without him, and especially against Arsenal, they have looked extremely impressive, and Klopp has understandably avoided changing a winning formula by leaving him out of the squad for today’s game. No need to fix what isn’t broken.
However, having said all that I believe City will get much better as the season goes on, and that they have a much more realistic chance of winning the EPL than today’s visitors.
When you look at the squad, you see goals: Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus; Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane; Bernardo and David Silva… Guardiola is presiding over a mightily impressive group of forwards, with enough creativity and finishing power to score against any opponent.
But I’ve said this before so I’ll say it again... the biggest key for City is not any of those players, but another who has not yet featured at all so far this season: Ilkay Gundogan.
Throughout his career, Guardiola has insisted that his teams control possession. According to his tactical beliefs, there is only one ball and if you stop the opponent from having it, you have claimed an immediate advantage.
That’s why Xavi was the perfect player to run the show at Guardiola’s Barcelona. That’s why he recruited Xabi Alonso and repositioned Philippe Lahm into midfield when he moved to Bayern Munich: to control the ball.
At City, Guardiola doesn’t have anyone who can do that. He has all the attacking talent previously mentioned, along with the impressive physical skills of Fernandinho and Yaya Toure.
But he doesn’t have a Xavi. He doesn’t have an Alonso. He doesn’t have a midfield controller who can take the game by the scruff of its neck and, like a policeman directing traffic or a conductor leading his orchestra, dictate what happens next and how it happens.
Actually, he does have someone like that, having signed Gundogan from Borussia Dortmund to fill precisely that purpose at the beginning of last season. In December, though, the German international suffered a serious injury which kept him out for the rest of the season and has even prevented him from appearing so far in the new campaign.
Now, however, he is back. Gundogan is in the squad to face Liverpool today, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to state that his form over the next few months will be the biggest factor in deciding whether Guardiola can lead City to the title.
It doesn’t matter how many world class forwards you have if there’s nobody who can get them the ball, and Gundogan’s ability to set and control City’s tempo will be absolutely vital. If he succeeds, he will set the path for the Silvas, Aguero, De Bruyne and the rest to wreak their merry havoc. If he doesn’t, City will continue to look disjointed and fall short.
It’s a lot of pressure to place on the shoulders of one man, but in terms of this season’s title race there’s nobody more important. Today, if he’s fit enough to play, would be a great place for Gundogan to prove it.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.