The EFL Cup fourth round looked the ideal way to ease back into domestic football after the World Cup. Then Manchester City drew Liverpool.
City had already eliminated Chelsea in the previous round, while Arsenal and Tottenham also fell by the wayside, creating a clearer path for those with genuine aspirations of silverware.
However, as top-six rivals Newcastle United and Manchester United were handed relatively kind home draws against Bournemouth and Burnley respectively, the two most recent EFL Cup winners were pitted against one another.
City made seven changes from their previous Premier League match for that Chelsea tie, with Jurgen Klopp swapping his entire starting line-up prior to scraping past Derby County on penalties.
Even with players still returning from Qatar, both Pep Guardiola and Klopp must know the risk of altering their teams again for this clash if they are to maintain hopes of celebrating at the end of February.
City had won the EFL Cup four seasons in a row prior to last season, tying Liverpool’s then record eight titles, only for the Reds to respond by taking the trophy last term.
This has proven to be a competition that can provide a timely boost as the final comes shortly before the return of European action in the English spring.
While City are again in contention for a quadruple Liverpool only narrowly missed out on last season, Klopp’s men appear set to fall some way short in the Premier League and face Real Madrid in the Champions League. They should not be passing up opportunities to add silverware in a hurry.
The same youthful line-up that just about got the better of Derby would surely be punished by City’s superstars, perhaps including the well-rested Erling Haaland.
That Derby tie saw a record 15th EFL Cup shoot-out success for Liverpool, who defeated Chelsea in last season’s final by the same method – both after goalless draws as the Reds have kept four clean sheets in a row in the competition.
As City look to avoid missing out on the quarter-finals in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2006-07, having lost to West Ham at this stage last term, this clash should be similarly close.
Yet another shoot-out would recall fond memories for City, with their last EFL Cup meeting against Liverpool coming in the final six years ago. The sides could not be separated in a 1-1 draw, but Manuel Pellegrini’s men won 3-1 from the spot.
That was one of three draws between the two in this competition, with Liverpool winning a further three encounters outright. Only once, in the third round in the 1969-70 season, have City beaten the Reds in 90 minutes. They went on to win the trophy for the first time in that season.
The last time City faced the holders in the EFL Cup was back in the 2011-12 campaign, when they dumped out Birmingham City but were then themselves eliminated in the semi-finals – by eventual winners Liverpool.
Liverpool have faced City as holders once and thrashed them 4-0 in 1995.
A repeat at the Etihad Stadium seems highly unlikely, with Liverpool winning just one of their past seven away matches against City in all competitions, albeit that was in a knockout scenario as a 2-1 success knocked Guardiola’s side out of the 2017-18 Champions League.
“It’s never a boring game against them,” said Liverpool assistant Pep Lijnders. “Both teams will put on a top show.
“We know against them that we have to be 100 per cent concentrated on the things we have to do, we need to be difficult to play against, be quick and efficient in the moments we have the ball.
“It’s a strange situation coming back from a World Cup and having this fixture straight away. The teams have proved in the past that whoever makes it on the pitch will make it a top show.”
The outcome of that top show could set the tone for the second half of the season for both of these sides.
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