But, when Jurgen Klopp’s side beat City 1-0 at Anfield on the last day of 2016, a result that moved Liverpool within six points of top spot, plenty of fans adjusted their ambitions and they have since been disappointed.
Rationalisation is a football supporter’s best friend. Most begin the season with optimism but as each goal moves out of reach, expectations are altered.
Liverpool’s next opponents are a case in point. Having reached the Champions League semifinal last season, giving a good account of themselves against eventual trophy winners Real Madrid, the appointment of Pep Guardiola surely encouraged their fans to believe City could do even better.
Instead, Wednesday’s disappointing exit in the Round of 16 against Monaco left City with “just” a top-four spot and the FA Cup to fight for. Liverpool would be happy enough with that, since they haven’t won the trophy for 11 years and are in the process of rebuilding again. Even their presence in the top four at this stage of the season is cause for optimism.
The Etihad was the scene of Jurgen Klopp’s first real statement as Liverpool manager in November 2015. Some say it was the 3-1 win at Chelsea weeks before, but in some way that merely indicated the problems Jose Mourinho faced at the time, eventually leading to his dismissal months after Chelsea won the league.
Against City, the Reds raced into a 3-0 lead after 30 minutes against casual, dishevelled opposition. The match ended 4-1, with the home team seemingly bewildered by Liverpool’s formation of no real strikers and three attacking midfielders — something that’s now their regular starting lineup, of course.
The Manchester club got revenge at Wembley in the Capital One Cup final three months later, winning after a penalty shootout. Liverpool have won the last two clashes, both at Anfield — a ground City regard as built from kryptonite.
With the Reds having an impressive recent record against their rivals and a good number of points against all their rivals for a top-four place, optimism is understandable, yet some things do register a note of caution.
Last season’s result apart, City’s home ground has not brought much joy for Liverpool, who have lost regularly there throughout the decade. Meanwhile, they would normally have reason for confidence in Philippe Coutinho, who usually scores against City but, as has been pointed out this week, the Brazilian is nowhere near his best. The sight of sky-blue shirts may fire him up gain, but that is clutching at straws somewhat.
The contrast between the two clubs sees Liverpool striving to get back to what they consider a rightful, regular place near or at the top while competing every season in the Champions League, and City, who are already there, well-funded and with ambitions loftier than a mere presence at the elite table.
It’s a situation Liverpool fans find difficult, given the stark contrast between both teams in the past. When City played at Maine Road, they were regularly thrashed by a Liverpool side usually on its way to another title.
Even in the grim years which followed the Reds’ last title success in 1990, things didn’t get better for City. Liverpool were even with their opponents on the last day of the 1995-96 season, a day of infamy when City wasted time — erroneously thinking their 2-2 draw was enough to stave off relegation. It wasn’t.
Sheikh Mansour has certainly turned things around for the Mancunians, yet somehow there’s still a whiff of the old City around the place. Few teams exit the Champions League after scoring five goals at home, but somehow they’ve managed it.
Given the way both teams play, it’s safe to say any result can be expected except a goalless draw. These teams do not defend well, which is lovely for the neutrals but agony for both sets of fans.
Whatever the result, the allocation of the top-four places in the Premier League won’t be decided on Sunday. Ordinarily, Liverpool could claim not facing another top-of-the-table rival for the rest of the season would be an advantage but, since Liverpool’s record against smaller clubs has been wretched of late, most will feel the remaining fixtures present a greater challenge.
A win over City would certainly allow them to breathe a little easier but it’ll be a huge task against a team doubly determined to show its home supporters how talented they really are.