Striker Sergio Aguero is ready for the challenge of Liverpool, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has warned.
Top scorer Aguero has missed City’s last four games after being sent off for a wild tackle on Chelsea’s David Luiz earlier this month.
During his enforced break — a second suspension of the season after being hit with a three-game ban in August — Aguero has spent some time resting back at home in Argentina.
However, now the 28-year-old is back and looking to add to his season’s 16-goal tally in Saturday’s eagerly-anticipated Premier League clash at title rivals Liverpool.
“He is ready,” Guardiola said. “He came back good from Argentina — finally back after seven games banned, three games plus four — and we are happy he is back.”
Aguero has scored 16 goals this season, but has also missed seven games through suspension and, while City have lost only one of those matches, Guardiola does not want him getting into any more disciplinary trouble.
He said: “We have had quite good results in seven games without him — except Leicester — but of course he’s important for us.
“Can you imagine all the teams in the Premier League without their best striker for all those games? It would be tough for them, like it was tough for us, but we are there, one point behind Liverpool.
“Tomorrow we finish the first half of the season. Hopefully in the second leg Sergio can play all the games.”
City have a poor record at Anfield, with a 2-1 win in 2003 their only league victory there since 1981.
Guardiola said: “That shows how difficult it is for Manchester City to go there. We are going to try and change that statistic, but it is always difficult there, for all the teams.”
Tonight’s clash at Anfield pits third-placed City against the side immediately above them. It will also be the first time Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, two of the Premier League’s elite managers and rivals from spells in Germany, have faced each other in England.
The anticipation is heightened, as Liverpool are the competition’s highest scorers so far this season, with 45 goals, while City’s 39 is the joint-second highest tally.
Guardiola attended Liverpool’s 4-1 win over Stoke on Tuesday and rates the Reds as “contenders, definitely”.
He added: “I was lucky to play against Jurgen Klopp. I think we know each other quite well and I saw Liverpool this year many times. There are six teams fighting for the title, especially for the first four positions, for the Champions League qualification. I see the contenders as really tough teams. It will be a good fight until the end of the season.
“I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We have to equal their intensity, of course. Anfield will play a big role for them.”
Defender John Stones could feature despite limping off during the first half of City’s hard-fought win at Hull on Boxing Day.
“John is much, much better,” said Guardiola.
The Spaniard, speaking at his pre-match press conference, dismissed reports linking City with a move for Real Madrid playmaker Isco.
“I have no idea,” the former Barcelona boss said.
Guardiola also hailed Raheem Sterling as a fighter, as he prepares for another testing trip to Liverpool. England forward Sterling struggled in all three of Manchester City’s clashes against the Reds last season, following his acrimonious move from Anfield.
Two of them came in quick succession, with Sterling failing to impress in the League Cup final at Wembley in February and then being substituted at half-time of his first Anfield return four days later.
Sterling’s campaign then ended in frustration with a groin injury, followed by a harrowing time at Euro 2016, but this season he has been rejuvenated under Guardiola.
The 22-year-old scored City’s winner in a crucial game against Arsenal earlier this month and then won the breakthrough penalty in the Boxing Day win at Hull.
Guardiola feels he is now in good shape.
He said: “What I saw is that, in the first part of the season, he was our key player up front. One month ago, he was a little bit down; for two or three games, he wasn’t aggressive like in the first part of the season, but in the last two or three, he came back and we need that.
“I am delighted about what he has done until now. He’s a fighter. In the last two games he was decisive, the goal against Arsenal, the penalty against Hull, when the game was tough, and we cannot forget he is so, so young. Of course, all the players need a process to get better, but we are so happy with what he’s done.”
Sterling is likely to receive a hostile reception from the Kop, but Guardiola is confident he can handle, or even thrive, on that.
He said: “Always it is difficult when the crowd is not on your side. They whistle, it’s not easy, but it is part of his growth and to become a better player. We are going to try and handle the situation, but obviously he must focus on what he has to do himself. That’s the only way he can handle it.”
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