Kop test for City’s ‘Quad’ credentials

WHISPER it softly, but are Manchester City running out of steam? It may seem impertinent to ask about a side that is still unbeaten in the second week of January, still looking at an unprecedented "Quad" and has been hailed as one of the greats of the modern game.

But the fissures of doubt have widened of late as the margins of victory have narrowed. The "cricket scores" have dried up as four times they have had to come from behind to win, and have often done so by a single goal.

You can say it's the hallmark of a great team that they always find a way, but they've been leaving it increasingly late as Pep Guardiola's options have become more limited.

Much has been made about the depth of their squad but they have only one fit striker.

Central defence is another accident area which they are acutely aware of – hence the attempts to bring in Jonny Evans as well as Alexis Sanchez.
Even if these two reinforcements arrive, neither will be at Anfield on Sunday (midnight in Malaysia) and in-form Liverpool will sense a genuine chance to catch City while they're below their all-conquering best.

The Reds, unbeaten in 17, will have a few points to prove anyway as when they did encounter City in their early season pomp, they were thrashed 5-0. But as every Kopite will tell you, it was a result distorted by the harsh sending off of Sadio Mane.

The score was 1-0 at the time and while City were purring, Liverpool were also full of menace. Mo Salah had turned Nicolas Otamendi inside out and the Argentine was already on a yellow. The feeling was that had Liverpool kept 11 men on the field, City would soon have been reduced to 10.

Besides fuelling the Reds' desire for revenge, that dismissal robbed viewers of a potential classic. For these are unarguably the most compelling attacks in the EPL: two irresistible forces albeit with somewhat movable objects in defence.

If Liverpool have notably bolstered theirs recently, their ability to hurt City where they are weakest has been lessened. Virgil van Dijk's arrival was never meant to cancel out Philippe Coutinho's departure, but City will be relieved the Fab Four has been reduced to a trio given that their own Achilles heel has come back to haunt them.

Central defence was always their weak spot and although Guardiola has reinvented Otamendi and John Stones, they still give opponents hope as the latter's reckless, penalty-conceding challenge against Bristol City showed.

With the hapless Eliaquim Mangala apparently immune to Pep's ministrations, we can be sure Jurgen Klopp will be focusing on City's soft centre. And for all their attacking brilliance, thoughts of a clean sweep of trophies cannot be entertained unless another body is brought in.

Pep is a renowned risk-taker and he's got away with putting square pegs in round holes so far. But getting Fabian Delph to make a fist of the leftback position has been the closest he'll come to extracting claret from H2O. There are limits to such experiments as he discovered in midweek.

For all Raheem Sterling's improvement, he's never going to be Sergio Aguero in front of goal. Nor is Bernardo Silva.

Pep tried one after the other in the striker's role in midweek but soon abandoned both, and had to bring on the Argentine to ensure a first-leg lead before the end.

Gabriel Jesus will not be back any time soon and Aguero cannot be expected to play every game till he is. Pep has already convinced us that it's his coaching as well as the Sheikh's cash that is behind this remarkable team.

So he should forget tinkering and let City pay whatever the Gunners demand.

With up to 30 more games left, the recruitment of Sanchez is essential if City are to maintain their assault on all fronts. Failure to do so when there's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win everything and you have a sovereign fund sitting on a £900 billion (RM4.8 trillion) oil field would go against the very ambition of the Abu Dhabis.

If they want to become the biggest club in the world, they should not be haggling over a few quid.

Ironically, Liverpool can lend a hand here. If the Reds can puncture City's aura of invincibility with a first league defeat of the season, it may convince them of the need to buy.

Nor will they lack incentives of their own. A morale-boosting win after the loss of Coutinho would reassure fans the club can cope without him and is still in the ascendant.

What Kopites will be hoping for is to attack with the same effectiveness seen in the Brazilian's not infrequent absences and confirmation those derby struggles really were blips. And they will want further evidence of the difference Van Dijk can make to the defence against the best attack in the business.

It really does have the makings of a belter of a contest and one that could have ramifications for both clubs – both short-term and long. The closer both get to completing their respective jig-saws, the greater the focus on the missing pieces.

But on Sunday night, we should have a much better idea about how many more these two compelling sides need to achieve their full potential.

City have to be nearer to it but need to quell suggestions they are beginning to look jaded. With David Silva only an intermittent presence for the foreseeable future, they've become heavily reliant on the peerless Kevin de Bruyne.

It will not encourage Liverpool but City have looked more vulnerable against the lesser likes of Bristol, Wolves, Burnley and Crystal Palace than the Big Six. Indeed, Klopp's men may just bring the best out of them and if they do, we could witness a cracker.

If City do put on a show at Anfield, there will not be much doubt that history will be theirs for the taking. But they should still buy a bit of insurance while they can.