West Ham United
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 By Simon Curtis

Liverpool take the plaudits as Manchester City fall under the radar

If you happen to have stopped paying attention recently, you may be forgiven for thinking that Liverpool are already well on their way to becoming European Champions, to add to their presumably commanding lead in the Premier League.

Certainly, Manchester City supporters, sensing the excitement about their opponents in the past eight of the Champions League, may be persuaded that their heroes are already as good as out of the competition before a ball is kicked in anger.

Everywhere one looks, a Liverpool squad that sits in a decidedly distant third place in the Premier League table, some 18 points behind leaders City, is being talked up to a bewildering extent.

That 18-point gap is no coincidence, however. Despite losing 4-3 at Anfield in January, City's only blemish on a remarkable league campaign so far, the two clubs are worlds apart. Even that one defeat to an agitated Liverpool side presented connoisseurs of such things with a real collector's item: three glaring errors in one game from a City back line, which has upped its game significantly this season.

Experts will point to the fact that the errors were forced by the very pressing game that Liverpool fans are convinced will carry them through to the semifinals of the Champions League, but can lightning strike twice? John Stones, bundled off the ball far too easily by Roberto Firminio for the crucial second Liverpool goal that set them back on the path to victory after Leroy Sane's equaliser, is unlikely to play. A centre back pairing of Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi will ensure a far more disciplined and muscled approach to Liverpool's tricky forward play.

Manchester City have scored eight and conceded four in matches against Liverpool this season.

Goalkeeper Ederson, responsible for the comical fourth goal, giving away possession cheaply to allow Mohamed Salah to lob into the goal he had just vacated, has had an almost blemish-free season, despite having next to nothing to do for long periods of each match. The law of averages suggests that his rush of blood to the head is unlikely to happen again anytime soon.

The Brazilian, in his first campaign in England, has managed to keep 18 clean sheets from his 37 games so far and is close to overtaking the much-heralded David De Gea in the race for the 2017-18 season Golden Glove award.

Having agonised over an atypical City performance, experts will do well to notice that, even on the occasion of this surprising defeat, City clawed the game back against a visibly wilting home side to 4-3. While Sergio Aguero's last-minute header that fell agonisingly wide would have been ruled out for offside anyway, it's clear the momentum was with City.

Having dealt with the Anfield defeat, a sincere appraisal of the reverse fixture may be useful too. City won that 5-0, although little is being made of this biggest home win over Liverpool since 1928. That it was partly accelerated by the red card issued to Sadio Mane, for a studs up challenge on Ederson that saw the City goalkeeper taken off on a stretcher with a gash to his throat, seems to be the only point remembered from this complete thrashing. City ran amok that day, with Sane again proving untouchable down the left flank.

Both league tussles will leave the losing sides with excuses for why they were turned over, but the European aggregate-style score of 8-4 would naturally be more than enough to carry City through, were it repeated next month.

There are many reasons why it will not be repeated, however. The cagey environment of a European quarterfinal should ensure a tighter pair of games than were witnessed at the Etihad and at Anfield in the league.

With his own manager comparing Salah to Lionel Messi, the temperature around the Anfield first leg continues to rise unabated.

City, with every indicator pointing to the fact they are by far the more accomplished side of the two, will do well to quell these fires in the next few days. They might also take succour from remembering a similar furore that met the teams before a supposedly crucial league decider in April 2014, where Anfield's triumphalism before, during and after a narrow 3-2 win made it look like the title had already been won.

At that point, with Liverpool three games from the finishing line, they held a nine-point lead over Manuel Pellegrini's City, who had five games to play. By the end of the season, it was of course an ecstatic Vincent Kompany, who had his hands on the gleaming trophy, as City slipped past a toiling Liverpool on the home stretch.

And this perhaps underlines the great chasm between how the fans are approaching the forthcoming tie. For City's a 16-point lead at the top of the table does not yet represent any assurances, while those backing the team 18 points adrift appear absolutely convinced that their team is capable of carrying all before it. The truth will soon be upon us.

Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.


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