(Community Shield photo courtesy Getty Images)
The prologue to the 2019-20 English Premier League season picks up Sunday where last season’s epic title race left off as two-time champions and domestic treble winners Manchester City face runners-up Liverpool at Wembley Stadium.
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The Cityzens followed up their unprecedented 2017-18 term of 100 points with another 98 last season and needed every last one of those points to stave off Liverpool. Manchester City won their final 14 league matches, overturning a seven-point deficit to the Reds they faced in January and showing steel that would have broken most other sides — the league lead changed hands 14 times in the final two months of the season and Liverpool themselves sprinted to the tape on a nine-match winning streak.
Pep Guardiola’s side bracketed their second straight league triumph with the Carabao Cup and FA Cup trophies, which gives him one of every domestic trophy England has to offer as City won this match last year over Chelsea. Yet the one piece of silverware everyone wants on the blue side of Manchester — Ol’ Big Ears — proved elusive to the Spaniard once again as City were bounced in the quarterfinals by Tottenham Hotspur — who lost in the final to Liverpool.
(Pep Guardiola photo courtesy Louis Bamford Dink/The Telegraph)
Though the Champions League trophy has now become the Moby Dick to Guardiola’s Ishmael — it is now eight years since he lifted it a second time with Barcelona in 2011 — the primary challenge on his mind is to set City on a proper path to a “three-peat,” last accomplished by City’s eternal rivals Manchester United from 2007-09.
“The Premier League is the focus,” Guardiola said at Saturday’s press conference ahead of the match. “The Champions League is an important tournament and difficult to win but I don’t want to go the casino and gamble everything for seven games.
“I want to be happy for every game for 11 months. When I win the Premier League, I am happy. I feel better so I work better with my players. For seven games from February it’s too risky. For the health and focus of the team it’s the Premier League, the Premier League is the focus. It’s the most important thing because it’s every weekend.”
City were relatively quiet in the transfer market this summer, with their big splash coming early last month with the signing of Rodri from Atletico Madrid. The Cityzens shelled out a club-record £63 million for the 23-year-old with the expectation he will be Fernandinho’s heir apparent in the defensive midfield. It would also help the expeted central defence pairing of John Stones and Aymeric Laporte develop further chemistry with former talisman Vincent Kompany having moved on to Anderlecht as player-coach in his native Belgium.
“It’s a style that excites me, as do the Club’s ambitions,” Rodri told The Independent after the deal had been completed. “I can’t wait to start working with Pep Guardiola and my new team-mates and hopefully we can achieve great things together.”
City’s attack will again be paced by Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling after the duo combined for 56 goals and 23 assists in all competitions. The Cityzens had five players — Aguero, Sterling, Leroy Sane, Bernardo Silva, and David Silva — finish with at least 10 goals and 10 assists, and Riyad Mahrez narrowly missed out with 12 and nine.
Guardiola has a breathtaking array of options up front, which may also prove the catalyst for Sane leaving before the start of the season. The German international has been linked to various moves all summer, but he still appears to be Guardiola’s first choice on the left flank.
But what should put real fear in the hearts of opponents is that City were able to rack up 167 goals in 60 matches while Kevin De Bruyne played less than 35 percent of those potential minutes. The Belgium international — arguably the best playmaker in the Premier League — was sidelined by injuries at three different points during last season, though he did contribute to City’s 6-0 FA Cup final smashing of Watford, and is eager to pick up where he left off in terms of quality at Wembley.
“To complete the clean sweep of domestic trophies here last season was very special,” he told the FA’s official website. “We’d worked hard all year, playing every three days and it was so competitive for everyone involved. I obviously didn’t play as much as I’d have liked because of injuries, so to come back for the FA Cup Final and feel like I made my contribution to what was an incredible season for everyone here was a great moment.”
Manchester City are expected to hold out their first-team South American contingent for this match, which includes No. 1 keeper Ederson, Fernandinho, and secondary striker Gabriel Jesus from the Copa America-winning Brazil side, while Aguero and Nicolas Otamendi helped Argentina reach the semifinals before losing to their international archrivals.
The sting of again failing to win their first Premier League title in club history was eased to a degree by becoming European champions for a sixth time after seeing off Spurs 2-0 in Madrid in June.
Reds boss Jurgen Klopp is under no illusions City are the favourites once more this season, but he also thinks his team is in a better frame of mind for this campaign after playing for such a high level both domestically and in Europe for prolonged strethes lat term.
“They won the league twice in a row, that’s one reason. For us, it was the first year on that level,” Klopp noted at his Saturday presser. “We have to prove we can be on that level again. The 97 points were no coincidence but it was not that we outplayed all the teams and shot them out of the stadium constantly.
“We had tight games, close games a lot. We were a real result machine last year and it was really, really impressive.
The Merseysiders will have nearly the exact same roster they had in 2018-19, with the lone incoming players a pair of teenagers in Dutch defender Sepp van den Berg and striker Harvey Elliott. Liverpool did clear some of their roster clutter by allowing Daniel Sturridge and Alberto Moreno to leave in addition to selling Danny Ings to Southampton for £18 million.
Liverpool have every reason to be content with their roster given its quality throughout the side. The trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino all return after teaming up for 69 goals in all competitions in 2018-19. They were the only three Liverpool players to reach double figures in goals last term, but they were also less burdened because the defence became a juggernaut.
That was thanks in large part to goalkeeper Alisson and centre back Virgil Van Dijk. The former, who arrived at Anfield last season after a £55.5 million move from AS Roma, proved every bit the shot-stopped Liverpool craved after their Champions League final loss to Real Madrid and finished with 27 shutouts and only 34 goals conceded in 51 matches.
(Virgil Van Dijk photo courtesy Liverpool FC official Twitter account)
Van Dijk was a colossus in the spine of Liverpool’s back four, winning PFA Player of the Year honours, and is expected to be a Ballon d’Or finalist when the award is handed out in December. Liverpool recorded 21 clean sheets and conceded just 22 goals in league play last term, substantial improvements from the 2017-18 season in which they totaled 17 clean sheets and 38 goals shipped.
Liverpool relies on its midfielders more for disruption than playmaking, as James Milner’s six assists were the best of the bunch. But where the Reds are lethal is on the flanks, where wide backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold operate, and the pair are incisive when it comes to crosses both in the run of play and on set pieces.
The duo now share the single-season record for Premier League assists by a defender after both finished with 12. The 21-year-old Alexander pipped Robertson for the overall team lead with 16 to the Scotland international’s 14, and the England international is eager to kick off this campaign.
“It’s another opportunity to win a trophy,” Alexander-Arnold told the club’s official website. “You’ve got to respect every competition you enter and this is one of many competitions that we’re in this season as a team. We’re obviously looking to win the game; it’s a game against City and one that might set off the start of the season. Effectively our season starts on Sunday and we’ve got a massive game against one of the best teams in the world.”
Klopp has ruled out Mane for this contest after he represented Senegal in the African Cup of Nations tournament. That means Divock Origi will likely slot up front on the left of Liverpool’s 4-3-3 alongside Firmino and Salah.
Odds and Ends
Per Ladbrokes, City are decided favourites to claim the shield for a second straight year at 19/20 odds. The odds of the match going to penalties after a draw are 13/5, while Liverpool are 11/4 underdogs in their first Community Shield match since losing to Chelsea in 2006.
The 2.5 over/under has seen punters favour the over at 7/10 odds compared to 21/20 to finish the under. The teams had one such verdict on each side last term — a scoreless draw at Anfield and a 2-1 City triumph at the Etihad. For combination plays with the over/under, a City victory and over 2.5 goals is the frontrunner at 7/4, and a win by the champions under the threshold is 19/5.
A Liverpool victory with three or more goals offers a 9/2 return in contrast to a 7/1 payout for a 1-0 or 2-0 Reds win. A City clean sheet pays out 23/10, while one for Liverpool is being offered at 13/2.
For first goal-scorers on each team, Salah and Origi pace Liverpool at 3/1, followed by Firmino and Rhian Brewster (7/2). Sleeper picks include Xherdan Shaqiri (5/1), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (7/1) and penalty taker Milner (9/1).
On the City side, Sterling and Aguero are joint-top at 13/5, with City academy product Nabil Touaizi third at 10/3. Jesus follows at 7/2, with Bernardo Silva (4/1) and Sane (9/2) trailing.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 1, Manchester City 2.