Aston Villa are unfancied, but Liverpool SHOULD have hope Man City can drop points on the final day
The Premier League always finds a way of throwing up extraordinary drama, and it has proved no different with this season’s title race. Is there time for one last twist?
Liverpool have done all they can to put pressure on Manchester City after closing the gap to a point following a 2-1 victory at Southampton ahead of the final day of the season.
But the Reds still ultimately need a favour from club legend Steven Gerrard – manager of Aston Villa – who takes his side to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
Liverpool did all they could to put pressure on Man City by winning at Southampton
But they still trail City by a point ahead of the final day and so need a favour from Aston Villa
The task to avoid a 19th top-flight defeat of the season for the West Midlands side is a monumental one and the heartbreak of City’s Champions League exit has only spurred them on to try and claim a fourth league title in five years.
But Villa – and Liverpool for that matter – should not abandon all hope of a shock result at the Etihad, so long as the Reds incur no problems of their own at Anfield against Wolves.
Pep Guardiola’s men may only have lost three league matches and drawn six this season, but it demonstrates the task facing Gerrard’s men is far from impossible.
So how do they go about trying to provide a final dramatic twist in the title race in an enthralling season? Sportsmail looks at the tactics of those top-flight sides who have taken points off City this term, and how they went about breaching their defence…
Southampton avoided defeat in both games, as did Liverpool, as did Spurs, as did Palace.
Jurgen Klopp’s men should still have hope with Pep Guardiola’s men having lost three games
Premier League title race standings ahead of the final game of the season on Sunday
Jurgen Klopp has already had his say on Antonio Conte’s tactics with Tottenham this season, but having suffered his own frustrations against them this term he knows just how effective they have been.
No more so than with the north London side’s double against City this season, the only team to have managed that feat in the Premier League in 2021-22.
No doubt City looked rusty in their first Premier League game of the season at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and with the few chances they did create rarely tested Hugo Lloris.
But that does a disservice to the real purpose Spurs showed, mixing defensive resilience with pace on the break in a display many believed could become a blueprint for the club under Nuno Espirito Santo.
Japhet Tanganga (L) was among Tottenham’s stars when they beat Man City back in August
Son Heung-min’s low shot proved to be the winner, but Japhet Tanganga gave Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish no space to operate down the left and marked them out of the game.
Lucas Moura was tireless in his work too, continuing the form he had built up in pre-season by driving forward with purpose at every opportunity.
Harry Kane sat out the game amid speculation he was set for a move to the Etihad, but he demonstrated exactly what they were missing when they shocked the champions 3-2 on their own turf.
No doubt Spurs – now under Conte – were over-reliant on the brilliant interplay between Kane and Son given that they only made occasional forays into the City half, but the partnership was at such a level that the defensive strategy worked.
Harry Kane then showed his individual brilliance to score a last-gasp winner at the Etihad
Son’s cool pass to Dejan Kulusevski and the Swede’s unerring finish were moments of individual brilliance followed by Kane’s own with a sweet half-volley into the roof of the net and his header across goal for a dramatic winner.
Ultimately though, they ensured they were excellent in regaining the ball, which then allowed Kane and Son to exploit City’s gamble of playing a high line through their well-documented abilities on the counter attack.
Conte is a manager known for planning quick breaks and once the ball was won back, their lightning-quick counters proved devastating. But equally as key was holding rank when City probed constantly for weaknesses in their defence.
While Spurs effectively adopted the same tactics under two different managers against City, Patrick Vieira adopted two different strategies to take four points off City.
In the 2-0 win at the Etihad, Vieira deployed Wilfried Zaha as a central striker and tasked him with occupying Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte, with Odsonne Edouard and Jordan Ayew flanking him.
It was the constant harrying and pressing of the defenders that led to the Spain defender – who had already conceded possession leading up to Palace’s opener – being sent off which came about after a professional foul on the Ivorian.
That is not to say Palace were not a threat on the break, with Jordan Ayew and Conor Gallagher both spurning chances before the on-loan Chelsea midfielder sealed the win late on.
Wilfried Zaha was deployed as a central striker in Crystal Palace’s win at the Etihad Stadium
But Palace also made sure they got the crowd aggravated, with the home fans on the day infuriated by what they saw as time-wasting beginning in the first half.
However, Palace were equally as frustrating opponents for City in front of a boisterous crowd at Selhurst Park in March, creating few clear-cut chances themselves going forward but showing resilience in abundance.
Happy to sit back on their own turf and try to maximise the half-chances they created on the break, there is no doubt luck was on Palace’s side that day.
Joao Cancelo and Kevin De Bruyne both struck the woodwork, while Laporte’s struggles against Palace continued after failing to score with the goal seemingly at his mercy.
But imbued with that luck were brilliant performances from Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi, who expertly stopped a number of City attacks and cleared danger in the box, while Tyrick Mitchell kept Riyad Mahrez quiet.
Gallagher won his midfield duels more often that not while Zaha and Jean-Philippe Mateta caused problems by running in behind.
Patrick Vieira’s men then showed resilience in their home game to scrap out a draw
Going for the title themselves, Liverpool were never going to sit back and try and counter City like the two teams above. That is not Jurgen Klopp’s nature anyway.
Instead, the Reds appeared to rely on individual brilliance from their peerless forward line against City, who dominated the first half in both of their 2-2 draws in the league this season.
But unusually for City, they failed to finish on several occasions at Anfield and then fell foul to an inspired Salah, who first set up Sadio Mane and then scored one of the great goals by slaloming his way beyond a number of City defenders before smashing home with his weaker right foot.
Mohamed Salah scored one of the classic Premier League goals in Liverpool’s draw at Anfield
At the Etihad Stadium though, there were a few bits from Liverpool that Villa can glean from, given they have no player of the calibre of Salah in their squad.
Once again, Pep Guardiola’s team probably felt at full-time they had the chances to have been more than 2-1 up at the break, and the sense of regret to not have nicked it at the end given the number of times they exploited spaces behind the full-backs.
But Diogo Jota’s pressing saw him almost capitalise on some pretty casual play from Ederson when City were in possession, with the Brazilian nearly allowing the ball to run into his own goal.
Moreover, the Reds showed character by coming from behind twice, first through the Portuguese and then through Mane after a ruthless finish from an inch-perfect from Salah.
But their was luck on this occasion too, with Raheem Sterling denied a goal by the tightest of VAR offside calls, while Riyad Mahrez will wonder how he got his effort to lob Alisson and finish into an empty net so very wrong.
The Reds then came from behind twice to seal a stalemate in another four-goal thriller
Perhaps a surprising name on this list given they sit just six points above the relegation zone in the table right now, but Southampton are the only side not already mentioned to remain unbeaten against City this season.
One of Villa’s hopes will simply be to catch City on an off day like they were against the Saints in September.
Lethargy was the word of the day after City failed to muster a single shot on target until the 90th minute, and even their precision in possession and spark in attack was missing.
At the other end, City had to be wary of Tino Livramento’s frequent breaks forward which were causing Cancelo some anxiety, and Adam Armstrong was also a nuisance with his endeavour in and out of possession.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men were unfortunate to only come away with a point in September
The forward even thought he had got Kyle Walker sent off and won a penalty for his side, only for VAR to suggest he fouled the England right-back in the challenge.
Boss Ralph Hasenhuttl was seemingly buoyed by his side’s performance four months later ahead of the return fixture, calling on his side to ‘be brave with the ball’ and ‘not park the bus’.
And with a defiant and inspired Mohammed Salisu in their ranks, the Saints protected their goal admirably. Salisu won the most tackles, and had the most interceptions, clearances, touches and tackles won.
When the Ghanaian was beaten, Fraser Forster was there to make plenty of fine saves – the best from Raheem Sterling – to help the Saints hold on for a hard-earned draw on home soil.
But there were plenty of commendable performances, from Armando Broja stretching City’s defence to Oriol Romeu spreading the play well while shielding the back four, while Nathan Redmond and Stuart Armstrong were full of running.
Mohammed Salisu then had the game of his life to frustrate the champions at St Mary’s
The most recent example of how City can be stopped came at the weekend when the Hammers went 2-0 up through Jarrod Bowen’s double.
The hosts’ biggest threat on the counter, Bowen combined well-timed runs to expose City’s high line with devastating finishes.
But Bowen was supported by strong running from Michail Antonio, who ran at Fernandinho at every given opportunity, while Pablo Fornals and Declan Rice kept the midfield running with fluid passing and surging runs.
Rice was also on hand to marshal the edge of the penalty area while Kurt Zouma and Craig Dawson made crucial interventions in the box when City did threaten.
Lukasz Fabianski of course saved the crucial Mahrez penalty but it was the first-half performance which exposed City’s weaknesses followed by the resilience to at least hold on for a point is what helped them out on this occasion.
Jarrod Bowen played the perfect counter-attack game to put Hammers 2-0 up last weekend
City have also had plenty of close shaves this season and sides have not got over the line to take points off them despite some commendable efforts.
Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford made a series of saves to keep City at bay – including a double stop to deny De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva – at Goodison Park in February before his own team-mates put the ball on a plate for Phil Foden to score.
Bukayo Saka troubled Nathan Ake at the Emirates Stadium on New Year’s Day and the Arsenal winger scored the opening goal, before they shot themselves in the foot with Gabriel’s sending off and Rodri’s last-gasp winner.
Leicester nearly pulled off an incredible comeback from 4-0 down with three goals in the space of 10 second-half minutes from James Maddison, Ademola Lookman and Kelechi Iheanacho. But they could not find the fourth before City scored another two.
Chelsea would be frustrated to come out without a point against City following two 1-0 defeats, especially in the end-to-end battle at Stamford Bridge, while spirited Brentford and Wolves performances went unrewarded too.
Bukayo Saka and Arsenal were on the front foot before they imploded on New Year’s Day
… So can Villa follow the pattern?
Well, they have demonstrated the sort of resolve and rallying quality demonstrated by Leicester in the fixture against City at Villa Park – Gerrard’s first defeat in charge of the club.
There was little City could have done from the swift City counter which saw Silva side-foot volley an effort past Emiliano Martinez after Ruben Dias had already beaten the Argentine.
But Ollie Watkins replied immediately after the break after smartly finishing off a well-worked corner, and Carney Chukwuemeka was denied by City goalkeeper Ederson.
However, ultimately the 2-1 defeat demonstrates they will need more than making life uncomfortable for City to inflict any damage.
Aston Villa striker Ollie Watkins scored in the reverse fixture and will have a big role on Sunday
Philippe Coutinho has plenty of history of doing that against City, with four goals and three wins in his six matches against them to date. But gone are the days when he could come close to the individual brilliance of the level of Kane, Son or Salah.
Watkins could provide the threat in behind but he will need to demonstrate the clinical finishing that Bowen and Mane did when they got their chances, as well as the relentless work rate of a Zaha.
But whether it was Tanganga, Salisu, Andersen or Dawson, the teams above have had one defender who has repelled a lot of what City threw at them, and that is the task of Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings.
Former City man Douglas Luiz and John McGinn will have to work back and marshal the box well like Rice and there has been little fanfare surrounding Martinez this season but he will need to muster the sort of performance he did against City for Arsenal in the 2020 FA Cup semi-final.
It remains a tall order for Villa, but on paper they do have a few stars who with some faultless displays could yet spoil the City party.
Villa will have to hope both Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings remain solid at the Etihad Stadium