Ardent Premier League fans could hardly have wished for a more mouthwatering fixture to mark the end of the international break, as Manchester City host Liverpool at their Etihad fortress on Saturday lunchtime.
The tantalising encounter pits the two leading teams in the country against one another in what may prove to be an unlucky 13th gameweek for one manager, as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp welcome players back from their national teams in dribs and drabs ahead of the biggest game of the season so far.
The Citizens had served up an eight-goal treat during their Stamford Bridge battle with Chelsea two weekends ago, where an old flame by the name of Cole Palmer denied the champions all three points in an unforgettable 4-4 draw, thereby restricting City to just a one-point lead at the top.
That slim advantage will be wiped out if Liverpool can record a second successive win in the top flight, having overcome Brentford 3-0 a fortnight ago - thanks to Mohamed Salah's brace and a Diogo Jota effort - to leapfrog Arsenal into second place on goal difference.
While several players from both sides may be confined to the treatment room, some of the globe's finest performers will be strutting their stuff on the Etihad turf, and here, Sports Mole picks a combined XI from both squads, using only players expected to be available for the encounter.
It is important to note that Manchester City number one Ederson is touch-and-go for this fixture at the time of writing owing to a foot issue, but a fully-fit Brazil international would still be consigned to the bench in our XI, as is sometimes the case in the national team setup. Had Alisson Becker not denied Bryan Mbeumo with the scores still goalless against Brentford, it could have been a different story entirely for the Reds, and the Liverpool number one - who boasts four clean sheets and a league-high 78.7% save rate in 2023-24 - was a simple pick.
Choosing between Kyle Walker and Trent Alexander-Arnold for the right-back berth was nowhere near as straightforward, with the latter showing glimpses of what he is capable of in a hybrid role, but we have just sided with the City man, who matches Alexander-Arnold's assist tally of one but boasts a far superior passing success rate of 89.1% compared to the Liverpool defender's 81%, and he is still as sharp as ever in one-on-one situations.
With Andrew Robertson still nursing a shoulder injury and Kostas Tsimikas producing a mixed bag of showings in the Scotsman's absence so far, the left-back selection was a toss-up between Josko Gvardiol and Manuel Akanji - neither of whom are natural full-backs but are prepared to play anywhere for the City cause. However, the latter already has two league goals to his name this season, is dispossessed on fewer occasions - 0.3 times per game compared to Gvardiol's 0.7 - and a 93.6% passing success rate is the joint fourth-best of its kind in the division this season.
As Akanji occupies the left-back role in our selection, his defensive colleague Ruben Dias - another player in the top 10 for passing percentages - slots straight into the heart of the backline, having continued to prove his perpetual importance to Guardiola's system. Furthermore, the Portugal international sits in second place in the entire league for progressive carrying distance with 2,699 yards, only below Pau Torres of Aston Villa with 3,018. With John Stones out injured and Ibrahima Konate touch-and-go due to a hamstring issue, a rejuvenated Virgil van Dijk could not be omitted, with the Dutchman looking like his old self in the backline and prevailing in 51 aerial duels so far - only Carlton Morris (53) and Ethan Pinnock (59) have won more.
Now onto one of the first names on the teamsheet, City's irrepressible fulcrum Rodri is the midfield maestro for all budding engine-room enforcers to look up to. Alongside a respectable tally of three goals and two assists, the Spaniard matches Akanji's 93.6% pass success rate and has produced 51 shot-creating actions in the Premier League this season, putting him in the top five of that column.
However, one man who can better Rodri's SCA count is Liverpool new boy Dominik Szoboszlai, who capitalises on Kevin De Bruyne's absence to earn a spot in our team. Worth every penny of the £60m fee he commanded, Szoboszlai has posted 55 shot-creating actions - the third-highest in the league - in addition to blocking 23 passes, the most of any player in the top flight so far. With Szoboszlai justifying an inclusion, we found ourselves umming and ahhing between Bernardo Silva or Phil Foden for the final midfield spot - especially as both have a tally of three goals and three assists to show this season - but we have given the latter the nod on account of his superior tally of shots per game (2 to 0.7) and dribbles per 90 (1.8 to 0.7).
Still smashing records for fun amid the unwelcome Saudi Pro League distraction, Mohamed Salah heads to the Etihad already boasting 10 goals and four assists for the current Premier League season, having only failed to directly contribute to a goal in two fixtures. The Egyptian's Brentford brace saw him bring up 200 goals in English football, and he needs only make the net ripple once at the weekend to join the Premier League's 150-goal club. Jeremy Doku and Darwin Nunez can count themselves unfortunate to miss out on a place, especially with the latter matching Julian Alvarez's tally of four goals and four assists for the Premier League season and even boasting a higher percentage of shots on target, but the effervescent Argentinian just gets the nod, having successfully completed more take-ons and registered more goal-creating actions so far this term.
Several selections in this combined XI are up for debate, but not a single soul can question the striker's verdict, as Erling Haaland is expected to shake off his latest ankle problem in time to lead the line against Liverpool. While not boasting the same 18-goal haul from 12 games last season - which says everything about his astronomically high standards - 13 efforts still sees the Norwegian talisman comfortably leading the way in the Golden Boot race, and all eyes will be on his unmissable battle with Van Dijk this Saturday lunchtime.
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