Manchester City v Liverpool: No Ederson, Mane or Firmino - but who made our combined XI?
The destiny of the 2018-19 Premier League title could become a lot clearer on Thursday if Liverpool are able to beat champions Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.
Jurgen Klopp's men were impeccable over the Christmas period as Pep Guardiola's team wobbled and the Reds would extend their lead to 10 points with victory.
But a restorative 3-1 win at Southampton on Sunday means City can potentially haul in their rivals and reignite a quest to become the first back-to-back winners of England's top flight for a decade.
Predicting how this heavyweight showdown might be resolved with be fiercely debated because, as our combined XI shows, the reserves of talent available to both managers are truly enviable.
A choice between two Brazilians in goal. Ederson was excellent in his debut season for City, catching the eye in particular with his footballing abilities. However, compatriot Alisson - who briefly held the world record for a transfer fee paid to sign a goalkeeper until Chelsea went big for Kepa Arrizabalaga - is the first choice for his country. Yes, he made an error against Manchester United, but the former Roma keeper has made a huge difference for the Reds.
THAT. SAVE. pic.twitter.com/mLIlI0euLA
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) December 11, 2018
It was also a tough call at right-back, where Trent Alexander-Arnold's form this season gets him the nod over fellow England international Kyle Walker. Alexander-Arnold's expertise from free-kicks - he scored a beauty in a win at Watford recently - adds a useful extra option into our XI. The 20-year-old is also arguably more dynamic than Walker, although Klopp did drop him for the reverse fixture in October.
Virgil van Dijk
When it came to selecting the centre-back pairing, the decision was clear: Van Dijk and someone. The Dutchman had to be patient to get his move to Anfield but the wait was worthwhile for Liverpool, who appear to have turned a clear weakness into an area of strength simply by splashing out £75million. He's been worth every last penny, though.
Happy to win the PFA Player of the month for November Thanks to all of the fans who voted and of course to all of my teammates! pic.twitter.com/ILBduoMYNh
— Virgil van Dijk (@VirgilvDijk) December 18, 2018
When Liverpool secured Van Dijk's services 12 months ago, City returned their attentions to Bilbao and swooped for Athletic defender Aymeric Laporte. The elegant Frenchman has perhaps not had the eye-catching impact Van Dijk enjoyed at Anfield but his composure, aerial ability and range of passing have established him as Guardiola's go-to defensive man on big occasions.
Benjamin Mendy offered City a new dimension with his raids down the left flank earlier this season before suffering a knee injury. However, Robertson is the choice here. The Scotland captain went from relegation with Hull City to a Champions League final in the space of a year, and even Jose Mourinho had nice words for the full-back: "He makes, I think, 100 metre sprints per minute".
— Andrew Robertson (@andrewrobertso5) December 2, 2018
Every midfield needs a bit of graft to go with the guile. Fernandinho provides a defensive shield for City, his positioning allowing the full-backs to provide width. A master at the niggly 'tactical' fouls that break up play and prevent opposing teams springing on the attack, the Brazilian remains a key component of Guardiola's squad. While his club would be wise to have a replacement in mind, the 33-year-old is more important than ever if the City's recent slump in his absence is anything to go by.
Kevin De Bruyne
Although the Belgium midfielder's 2018 has been heavily hit by injuries, he was the key man as City romped to the title in record-breaking fashion last season. Returning with a stunning strike in the EFL Cup quarter-final against Leicester City, it is ominous that City have kept pace with Liverpool even without having their talisman available for much of the campaign. All eyes will be on his fitness over the coming days.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 24, 2018
Completing an all-City midfield three is the man the champions' fans call 'El Mago' - the magician. Silva is arguably City's greatest ever player and as such it would be impossible to leave him out despite the growing array of midfield talent available to Klopp. Utility man James Milner, formerly of the Etihad, is perhaps unlucky to miss out but Fernandinho, De Bruyne and Silva is arguably the best midfield trio in world football right now.
It says a lot that there was talk of Salah being a 'one-season wonder' after he made a slow start to 2018-19, such was his incredible form in a debut campaign for the Reds. He appeared to be troubled by the shoulder injury suffered in the Champions League final at the start of the season, but a hat-trick in a thumping win at Bournemouth showed the Egypt star is back to his best. Four goals in five subsequent December appearances have followed.
Guardiola took time to appreciate Aguero's gifts and the Argentina striker has appeared to be second-choice behind Gabriel Jesus at times. But Aguero is now among the first names on the teamsheet for the City boss, who has got the club's record goalscorer to buy into his pressing principles. Aguero is now not only arguably the world's most dangerous penalty box striker, he also performs a similar role to Roberto Firmino in leading his side's press from the front.
It fills us with pride to win the derby with team work and our supporters crowding the stadium. Let's celebrate! (And while my hair may be gray now, Manchester is blue ) C’mon City! pic.twitter.com/kV6RWDxgVh
— Sergio Kun Aguero (@aguerosergiokun) November 11, 2018
Last but not least is Raheem Sterling, who dealt admirably with appearing to be racially abused as City's unbeaten start to the season ended in a defeat at Chelsea. Sterling has taken his game to new levels this season, winning the Premier League's Player of the Month award for November, and he edges out both Firmino and Sadio Mane for the last place in our side.