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Sergio Aguero is poised to make his comeback at Anfield on Saturday with Pep Guardiola praising Manchester City for the way they have coped with their top scorer’s absence.
The Argentinian has completed a four-match ban for his red card against Chelsea, and also served a three-match suspension in September when he was retrospectively punished for elbowing West Ham’s Winston Reid.
But while City lost 4-2 to Leicester in the first game Aguero missed in December, they have won five of the six league matches he has missed, taking 15 points. Their average 2.5 points per game without him and only 2.0 with him.
And it prompted Guardiola to wonder how his rivals would fare without their premier forwards. Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, Chelsea’s Diego Costa, Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez and Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic have all started 17 of their 18 league matches.
“We have quite good results in the seven games without him,” Guardiola said. “We made good performances, except Leicester. But of course he’s important for us. Can you imagine all the teams in the Premier League without his 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.”
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Aguero was granted a break in his homeland and Guardiola added: “He came back good from Argentina and we are happy he is back.”
City will be without the injured trio of Vincent Kompany, Leroy Sane and Ilkay Gundogan but John Stones, who had to be replaced after 18 minutes of Boxing Day’s 3-0 win at Hull, is “much better” and back in contention.
Raheem Sterling is set to face a hostile reception as he returns to Anfield for only the second time since his controversial £49 million move last year.
The winger was taken off at half-time in City’s 3-0 defeat to Liverpool in March but Guardiola believes he needs to prove he can cope with such intimidating environments to improve.
“It is always difficult when the crowd is not on your side and they whistle,” he added. “But it is part of his growth to become a better player.”
Sterling scored City’s winner against Arsenal 13 days ago and won the penalty that brought the breakthrough at Hull and Guardiola added: “In the first part of the season, he was our key player up front. Then one month ago, he was a little bit down, two or three games he wasn’t aggressive like in the first part of the season. And then in the last two or three he came back and we need that.”
Guardiola will renew a rivalry with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp that they began in Germany and he admires the former Borussia Dortmund coach for his use of a high-paced pressing game.
“Maybe he is the best manager in the world at creating teams who attack the back four, with this amount of players, this intensity, with the ball and without the ball,” he said.
Guardiola shrugged off suggestions Klopp’s high-energy approach will burn his players out before the end of the title race, adding: “What he did in Dortmund, he is able to maintain that level for a season”.
Liverpool have not won the league since 1990 but Guardiola is adamant that could change this season. “They are definitely title contenders,” he said.
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