Graham Ruthven: Why Xherdan Shaqiri must start against Man City

Liverpool travel to Manchester City on Thursday night in the Premier League’s biggest game of the season and Graham Ruthven feels Shaqiri has to start…

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There will be no trophies and no medals handed out at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday, but if the result goes a certain way, Liverpool’s way, the silverware might as well come out the Manchester City cabinet and head back to Anfield on the team bus.

A 10-point lead, which would be the result of a Liverpool win over City, would put Jurgen Klopp’s side, the Premier League’s most complete team, out of sight and well on course for the club’s first league title in 29 years.

At that point, with that advantage, only an almighty collapse would allow City, or anyone else for that matter, back into the race.

That’s why Thursday’s trip to Manchester has taken on such significance for Liverpool.

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An away game against the defending Premier League champions was always likely to represent a big moment in the Reds’ season, but the events of the past few weeks, the dip in form that saw City lose three of their four games played over Christmas, have changed the complexion of this fixture.

No matter the outcome, even in the event of a heavy defeat, Liverpool will still be in the title race.

A win for the Reds, though, could effectively knock Man City out of contention. Whereas ordinarily the temptation for Klopp might have been to set up his team not to lose, the incentive of a win, in this particular case, far outweighs anything else.

They must go for it because the reward would be so great.

Klopp must come up with a plan to break down City. Fernandinho is back and so Pep Guardiola’s side will be tougher to expose than they were in the recent defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester City.

Indeed, when the Brazilian plays, Man City are a more balanced side. He is their anchor in the centre of the pitch.

Liverpool need someone to unsettle Fernandinho and Xherdan Shaqiri fits the bill. The Swiss has proved himself as one of the signings of the season, joining the Reds from Stoke City for just £13 million in the summer.

He has become a difference-maker for Klopp, whether that be out wide or through the middle.

Shaqiri is an exploiter of space. He has the natural knack of where to look for the ball and where he can cause the most damage with it. It’s a recognised managerial practice, particularly in a big game, for a player to be deployed with the sole purpose of marking an opposition threat. A man marker.

Shaqiri should be used in the opposite way on Thursday. He should be deployed with the sole purpose of unsettling Fernandinho, of knocking the Brazilian out of his natural game.

Despite the way Shaqiri has settled into life on Merseyside, Klopp has been reluctant to give the 27-year-old a run of starts in the team.

Only nine of his 16 Premier League appearances for Liverpool have come from the start, with Shaqiri instead seen as someone to make an impact off the bench.

He must start against City, though. Shaqiri is a driving force and Liverpool will be required to drive at their opponents if they are to open up space and expose the same defensive weaknesses exposed by Chelsea, Palace and Leicester in recent weeks.

Klopp should look at the success Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had against Man City in the Champions League last season. Shaqiri could replicate that.

Alternatively, with Fabian Delph suspended and Benjamin Mendy still injured, Klopp could use Shaqiri on the right to get at the sometimes vulnerable Oleksandr Zinchenko. But Mohamed Salah would do this in his natural position anyway.

Shaqiri through the middle would give Liverpool yet another edge.

The meeting between City and Liverpool earlier in the season was a non-event. Both teams felt content with a point apiece after all was said and done – even with Riyad Mahrez’s late penalty horror show.

This time, however, there will be a greater reward for the side that tries to win the match over the one that tries only to avoid defeat.

Whether or not Shaqiri plays will indicate what Klopp really wants from the game.

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