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Aug 22, 2014

Zabaleta-Sterling a key battle

Much of the talk ahead of Manchester City's clash with Liverpool has surrounded Mario Balotelli's impending arrival at Anfield. The Italian will not be registered in time to feature on Monday night, however, in what is the first heavyweight battle of the season as the defending champions host last season's surprise runners-up.

Even without the ever-entertaining Balotelli, there are some intriguing matchups in the upcoming showdown, with both managers having to make tactical decisions after somewhat modest opening fixtures.

Manchester City's 2-0 win away at Newcastle was less comfortable than the result suggests, with Sergio Aguero only killing the game off in injury time after the Magpies had a great chance to equalise. Liverpool's match with Southampton was of interest for a number of reasons, not least that the Reds had recruited three of the Saints star men over the summer, but those that remained under Ronald Koeman certainly put in a decent account of themselves, falling to a narrow 2-1 defeat.

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City opted for a straightforward 4-4-2 formation at St. James' Park, with Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic partnered up front. The return to fitness of Aguero will likely see at least one of those miss out, though Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini could switch to one up front in a system that would allow Fernandinho to return to the side, providing a more solid platform with near-namesake Fernando and allowing Yaya Toure the freedom to push on.

Liverpool will likely stick to the 4-2-3-1 setup that they deployed last time, though there may be some changes in personnel. A surprise starter last weekend, Lucas could drop out for either Joe Allen or Emre Can, and if Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers wants to compete physically with their hosts' power on Monday, a debut for the latter may be advisable. Elsewhere, Alberto Moreno is also in line to make his first start for the Reds, competing for the two fullback spots with Glen Johnson and fellow newcomer Javier Manquillo.

If the visitors do opt for their two Premier League-inexperienced Spaniards, then City will certainly look to test them at every opportunity. Both Samir Nasri and David Silva in particular look to drift inside and whoever is chosen in the fullback berths for Liverpool will need to be wary of getting dragged out of position, given their City counterparts' willingness to bomb forward. Pablo Zabaleta may well return to provide a stern test for Moreno if the 22-year-old were to make his debut.

Forcing the in-form Raheem Sterling to track back will be key, with the teenager's potential battle with the Argentinean likely to be an intriguing one on the Liverpool left. The England international picked up the highest rating from the opening weekend from WhoScored.com (8.96) having scored and picked up an assist, as well as completing five dribbles against Southampton.

The battle between Raheem Sterling and Pablo Zabaleta could prove decisive in Liverpool's visit to Manchester City.
The battle between Raheem Sterling and Pablo Zabaleta could prove decisive in Liverpool's visit to Manchester City.

Pellegrini will be keen to have Zabaleta back available then, despite Gael Clichy's admirable performance out of position in his stead against Newcastle -- the Frenchman's rating of 8.90, second only to Sterling. Deemed very strong according to WhoScored's player characteristics in "dribbling," "finishing" and strong at "key passes," Sterling will need to be kept in check and Zabaleta should be the man for the job, earning a rating of 7.25 from WhoScored last season having averaged 3.4 tackles per game.

If fit, it is perhaps Aguero who will be the pivotal player in this encounter, though, taking less than 10 minutes to open his account for the season after having replaced Dzeko late on last week. In just 20 league starts last season, the forward notched 17 goals, as well as six assists, and up against a Liverpool side that shipped 32 goals on the road in 2013-14 -- only fewer than five other sides -- he could cause havoc for what may be an unfamiliar back line.

None of the past six competitive matches between these two sides have been separated by more than a single goal, and this should be another competitive affair. City's superior power could prove telling, however, just as it did in the title race last season.

All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.

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