Manchester City launch themselves into a foreboding run of fixtures at home to Liverpool on Sunday with Pep Guardiola under pressure to prove he has not lost his magic touch.
Dumped out of the Champions League by Monaco on Wednesday, City face a five-way scrap with Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United over the three spots in next season’s competition.
Liverpool’s visit precedes back-to-back trips to Arsenal and leaders Chelsea and having already seen his side lose at Anfield, Guardiola knows just how dangerous Jurgen Klopp’s side can be.
“Klopp is a top coach,” the City manager told his pre-match press conference, two days on from his side’s disjointed 3-1 loss to Monaco at Stade Louis II.
“It’s an attacking side: win the ball and attack. He likes to attack in four, five, six seconds all the time.
“He’s a top trainer. I respect (him) a lot. Huge, talented players, English players and foreign players. I think it’s a really good team.
“A good test against one of the best teams in the Premier League.”
City go into the weekend third in the Premier League table, one point above fourth-place Liverpool with a game in hand.
It is a measure of the extent to which Guardiola’s stock has fallen in England that Liverpool could become the first team to record a home-and-away double over a side he has managed.
In addition, City have already lost five times this season and Guardiola has never suffered six league defeats in the same campaign.
But while Liverpool will draw encouragement from their 1-0 win over City on New Year’s Eve, secured by an early Georginio Wijnaldum header, they remain beset by doubts themselves.
The victory against City left them six points below leaders Chelsea, but they have won just three of their nine matches since and continue to fluctuate between bewitching and bewildering.
A dismal 3-1 defeat at Leicester City bridged impressive home wins over Tottenham and Arsenal and they laboured to a 2-1 home victory over Burnley in their most recent outing.
Klopp enjoyed a good record against Guardiola when they were in charge of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich respectively, but he says reports of the Catalan’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
“For me City is the most difficult team to play,” said the Liverpool manager, who oversaw a 4-1 victory at the Etihad Stadium last season.
“I know their image at this moment in this country is a little bit different.
“I’ve heard about Pep Guardiola’s style and all that stuff, but it is real football and it is difficult to defend against them and a lot of teams have failed already.
“If you are passive against City, you have no chance. You have to be active and to be active, you need to be brave.”
Whereas three of City’s five defeats have come against other teams in the top six — Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool — Klopp’s side have shown a particular aptitude for top-of-the-table clashes.
They are unbeaten in the nine league games they have played to date against the other teams in the top six and have emerged victorious on five occasions.
City captain Vincent Kompany will hope to feature after overcoming a knee injury, having been left out of the squad for the trip to Monaco.
Midfielder Ilkay Gundogan (knee) and forward Gabriel Jesus (foot) remain long-term absentees.
Klopp is crossing his fingers Brazilian forward Roberto Firmino will prove his fitness in time.
Firmino missed last week’s victory against Burnley due to a groin complaint, but returned to training on Friday.
Captain Jordan Henderson (foot) and striker Daniel Sturridge (hip) are definitely out and Divock Origi is a doubt due to illness.
But Dejan Lovren (knee) is fit after playing 75 minutes for the club’s under-23s on Monday and could take over from Ragnar Klavan in the heart of the Liverpool defence.