Manchester City face Liverpool on Wednesday in the Champions League.
To continue our build up to the big game, we spoke to journalist Richard Jolly to get the inside track on the Anfield side.
Richard, you follow Liverpool very closely. What’s your overall assessment of their season so far?
Broadly, I think it’s gone pretty well. The downsides were the domestic cup exits because they still haven’t won a trophy under Jurgen Klopp.
The Champions League has been encouraging; they haven’t actually played top-quality yet but given their recent record – or lack of it – in the Champions League, to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2009 is encouraging.
In the Premier League, it was always a case of whether they could clinch that top-four finish because they’ve not got into the top four while they’ve been playing in the Champions League for nine years and, at the moment, they’re on course to do that.
They haven’t managed to have such a good record against the top clubs as they had last year. They have lost away at City 5-0, they lost away at United, they lost at Tottenham 4-1. But in other respects, it’s been a good season.
They’ve coped well with the loss of Phillipe Coutinho. In fact, they coped well with the whole Coutinho situation because after he nearly moved in the summer, Klopp then brought him back into the fold, he played very well for three months, they then lost him in January and have coped well with his absence.
Salah, obviously, has been phenomenal and Firmino has been very good.
There have been improvements in the defence, although it’s still very much a work in progress. But it’s been a good season and one they needed because they want to become that consistent top-four team again, which they haven’t really been for the best part of a decade.
You mention the improvement in defence, what has Virgil Van Dijk given them since his move in January?
He’s generally been excellent. Obviously, he had that fantastic debut against Everton where he scored a late winner. He is giving Liverpool something they didn’t have before in the sense he’s a bit of a leader, a talker. It makes it easier for Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip to play in a centre-back partnership where they don’t need to be the best one.
Where Van Dijk had made a difference is, in the first half of the season, there were times when the left side of the back four could be a bit of a weak link – the defeat at Tottenham being a case in point. Now that side looks the stronger half, with Van Dijk as the left-sided centre-back and Andrew Robertson, who’s been a revelation, at left-back.
Teams might now try and attack Liverpool down their right side, where Trent Alexander-Arnold and either Lovren or Matip are.
Do you think Leroy Sane may be able to get at Alex-Arnold?
I’d expect so, yeah. Wilfried Zaha had some joy against him on Saturday.
Alexander-Arnold is a huge talent and is very, very quick. But he hasn’t been playing right-back for that long; he played further forward for much of his time in the youth ranks.
From a Liverpool perspective, it’s a shame that Joe Gomez is injured because I think he’s the one they would have picked to go up against Sane because he’s a much more natural defender. Alexander-Arnold is much more of a wing-back in his skillset. But the way Sane is playing, you’d fancy him up against pretty much anyone at the moment.
Mohamed Salah has scored 37 goals in all competitions, which is remarkable. And I saw a stat this morning saying nobody has ever scored in more games in a Premier League season, and he still has six matches remaining! What makes him so good right now?
He’s currently in that vein of form where he has complete confidence and momentum. If he has a quiet game, he can pop up with a winner, like he did against Crystal Palace, and when he’s rampant he can just destroy teams, like he did against Watford.
He’s very, very quick and when he gets on those slaloming dribbles into the penalty box and shoots, you can see why people compare him with Lionel Messi. That’s not to say he’s as good as Messi, but just that not many players do that.
The tactics really suit him as well. Kevin De Bryne described Salah as an inside-forward. Salah will call himself a winger but he doesn’t really play on the wing.
He plays a position that a lot of club’s struggle to deal with, that in-field winger that gets in the channel between the centre-back and the left-back. Teams struggled last season with Sadio Mane in that role and Premier League sides haven’t yet formulated very good answers to Liverpool’s tactics.
Liverpool have lacked a bit of consistency this season but is it fair to say that, at their optimum, they are the second-best in the Premier League?
In terms of entertainment, the two best teams to watch are City and Liverpool, there’s no doubt about that.
Liverpool on their day can blow anyone away and that’s what makes them really dangerous opponents. Liverpool scored three goals in nine minutes against City at Anfield in January and I don’t think any other English team can do that.
They have the potential to go a long way in the Champions League because if they produce that devastating spell against anyone, that might be enough.
I don’t just say that in terms of City. If Liverpool had drawn, say, Bayern Munich or Juventus, they would have been underdogs but because they’ve got that potential to blow teams away in such a quick, devastating fashion, they stand a chance against virtually anyone.
What can we expect from Liverpool on Wednesday?
I would imagine Klopp will try to use the same sort of tactics as he did in the 4-3. A fast start is something Liverpool have done well during Klopp’s reign.
One thing which has improved since Coutinho left is that the midfield is actually quicker now. Oxlade-Chamberlain will probably play as the most attacking of the three central midfielders, whether he’s on the left or the right. That was a big factor in the 4-3.
I suspect Guardiola will play De Bruyne deeper than usual, alongside Fernandinho, to try and counter Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Some of the most intriguing battles will be on the flanks. Robertson against Sterling, Sane against Alexander-Arnold…those could be interesting.
I think it will be a fantastic game. The two league games this season had 12 goals between them and plenty of drama.
Guardiola is wary of Liverpool. I think he admires Klopp’s tactics. He’s got a much more even record against Klopp than he has against a lot of managers. If you look at his record against Mourinho, for example, he’s won a lot more games than he’s lost.
His record against Klopp is a lot closer than that. It should be a very competitive game.
Predicted Liverpool XI?
Karius; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Van Dijk, Robertson; Milner, Henderson, Oxlade-Chamberlain; Salah, Firmino, Mane.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, the Guardian, the National and the Observer. You can follow him on Twitter @RichJolly