Still trailing Liverpool by six points, Manchester City would be hoping to continue to keep on the pressure on the league leaders with the visit of Southampton to the Etihad Stadium for the second time in five days after first hosting the Saints in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday
Manchester City welcome Southampton back to the Etihad Stadium today in the Premier League, just four days after they knocked the Saints out of the Carabao Cup.
City have responded well since losing to Wolves at the start of the month, winning their last four games in all competitions, including back-to-back wins in the Premier League. However, due to the impressive form of rivals Liverpool, Pep Guardiola’s side still find themselves six points adrift of the Reds, who sit top of the table.
City’s win in midweek was their fourth in a row following the international break – a run that suggests that the club are close to hitting top form as they continue glory on four fronts.
The Citizens are the Premier League’s top scorers this season with 32 goals from their opening 10 games, while Saturday’s opponents Southampton have the division’s worst defence, having conceded 25 goals already.
Those numbers will make pleasant reading for Guardiola’s side, who in the form of Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero boast two of the division’s most deadly finishers.
England international Sterling has starred for City this season, consistently beating defenders with his pace, creating opportunities for his teammates and regularly getting in behind opposition defences.
His speed and direct approach play down the left-hand side has been a thorn in the sides of many teams this season, and that is likely to be the case against a Saints team who have struggled to defend effectively in the wide areas this season.
Kyle Walker is expected to return to the team at right-back and his lung-busting runs will be a source of nightmares for Southampton’s beleaguered defensive unit.
City will also have, statistically at least, a distinct advantage in the air against Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men, with defender Nicolas Otamendi leading the way for the club in terms of aerial challenges won this season.
Interestingly, the Sky Blues have not lost a home game against a side starting the day in the relegation zone since November 2008.
Hasenhuttl’s men enter today’s game hoping for a response to their record-breaking 9-0 defeat against Leicester City last Friday, a game in which their attempt to mark man-to-man was torn apart by Ryan Bertrand’s early dismissal.
The one-man advantage that the Foxes enjoyed was the undoing of the Saints’ back three, who have looked far from convincing throughout the season thus far.
In midweek, the Saints did look much more organised, opting for a fully-fledged 5-3-2 that gave them numbers behind the ball at all times.
However, they still lost, a result which extended their winless run in all competitions to five games.
After winning their first ever match at the Etihad back in April 2004, the Saints have failed to register a win in the blue half of Manchester in their nine subsequent visits.
Although their Austrian coach is under severe pressure at the moment with the south coast club down in the bottom three, there are some signs that they could grab something from the game at the weekend.
For example, City had real difficulty breaking down Wolverhampton Wanderers a few weeks ago, eventually being beaten by the pace their opponents possessed on the counter.
That offers a blueprint for the Saints to follow, as although they are without influential and explosive winger Moussa Djenepo, they do have the likes of Danny Ings, Che Adams and Nathan Redmond at their disposal.
Likewise, as Norwich City showed in September, there will be chances to score against a City backline that is far from impenetrable.
Meanwhile, fans will be treated to a sneak preview of one of the EFL Cup quarter-finals today when Aston Villa welcome unbeaten league leaders Liverpool to Villa Park.
Two days after the clubs were drawn against each other for December’s cup contest they will do battle in the league, with both sides coming into the game off the back of Wednesday wins which sealed their places in the last eight.
Liverpool will have barely had time to catch their breath ahead of this match following their crazy and chaotic cup classic against Arsenal on Wednesday night.
A brilliantly bonkers contest ended 5-5 after normal time before Liverpool won a penalty shootout which was actually lower scoring than the game itself, Curtis Jones enjoying the dream moment of netting the winning penalty in front of the Kop end on what was his home debut for his boyhood club.
Jurgen Klopp’s suggestion that it could have all been for nothing should Liverpool be forced to withdraw from the competition due to their Club World Cup commitments dampened the atmosphere somewhat after the game, but even with a completely changed XI the result once again showcased the never-say-die attitude that has played a major role in them setting the pace at the top of the Premier League table.
Today’s match will be much more than just a dress rehearsal for the EFL Cup quarter-final, particularly with the prospect of an Anfield showdown against Manchester City on the horizon.
The Reds take on their main title rivals next weekend knowing that a win would be a significant step towards a first title in 30 years – even at this stage of the season – but they also have matches against Villa and Genk prior to that which will require their full attention.
While it is impossible to argue with a joint-record tally of 28 points from the first 30 available which leaves them six clear of City, it is some time since Liverpool delivered a victory as convincing as their league position suggests they should.
Over the last five league games the leaders have hung on to beat Chelsea, needed a goalkeeping howler to beat Sheffield United, required late goals against Leicester City and Manchester United and had to come from behind against Tottenham Hotspur to keep their fine form intact.
The ability to grind out results when not at their best is a priceless commodity and one which so often separates champions from the rest, but a comfortable and confident win by more than one goal is arguably overdue for a team who have been statistically as good as any the Premier League has ever seen over the past season-and-a-bit.
One reason behind that is perhaps their defensive record; Liverpool may have conceded the joint-fewest goals in the Premier League this season, but they have kept only two clean sheets in 10 games and, across all competitions, have not kept a shutout in six.
Klopp will be the first to stress that there are no easy games in the Premier League, particularly on the road, and Villa’s home record this season suggests that Liverpool may need to find answers from somewhere again today.
The newly-promoted side are unbeaten in their last five outings in front of their own fans including Wednesday’s victory over Midlands rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers, which set up that quarter-final tie with Liverpool.
Indeed, home or away Villa’s only loss in their last six matches came at Manchester City last weekend, and even then they gave the champions a scare during a goalless first half.
The eventual 3-0 defeat at the Etihad leaves them 15th in the table, just three points clear of the relegation zone, but Dean Smith will be relatively content with how their return to the top flight has gone so far.
Only Tottenham outside the top four have scored more goals than the Villans this term, although on the flip side only the bottom three have conceded more too, so there are clear areas for improvement.
A double-header against Man City and then Liverpool is as tough as it gets in the Premier League at the moment and if Villa can even come away with one point from those two games they will deem that a good return, so they could be out to frustrate the Reds from the off in this match.
In John McGinn, Anwar El Ghazi and Jack Grealish they have a midfield capable of breaking and getting goals, though, while Wesley could provide an important hold-up role if, as expected, Liverpool see the lion’s share of possession.