LONDON (Reuters) - Pep Guardiola believes his Manchester City side have to match Liverpool's intensity at the Reds' Anfield fortress on Saturday if they are to avoid ending the year on a deflating note.
The Spaniard has enjoyed mixed fortunes in his brief reign at the Etihad, a dazzling 10-match winning start and a brilliant Champions League win over Barcelona having gone hand-in-hand with some unconvincing, absent-minded performances.
Yet if he can end the year by derailing rampant Liverpool with a fourth consecutive league win - and their first at Anfield for 13 years - it would offer a timely reminder of why Guardiola was always seen as the man to elevate City to a new plane.
He went to Anfield this week to watch his hosts' hugely impressive demolition of Stoke City and may have been forgiven a mild shudder of apprehension when recalling how his side had fallen apart at Leicester City earlier in the month.
A similar, distracted performance against Liverpool at their swarming "gegenpressing" best would be potentially calamitous for the side lying just a point behind Juergen Klopp's second-placed team.
"Liverpool are contenders for the title, definitely," a Guardiola acknowledged at a news conference on Friday when his intense mood seemed to reflect the potential importance of this attractive fixture.
"I don't know what will happen tomorrow, but I know we have to equal their intensity. Anfield will play a big role tomorrow but what happens in the past stays in the past."
Just as Klopp is a fan of Guardiola, the Spaniard has long talked of his admiration for the former Borussia Dortmund coach with whom he crossed swords in the Bundesliga when he was at Bayern Munich.
Yet he too has no time to entertain the idea of personal duels when all he can see is a table full of live title contenders.
"There are six teams fighting for the title, especially for the first four positions for Champions League qualification," he said.
"The contenders are all really good teams so it will be a good fight until the end of the season."
City will be without the injured Leroy Sane and Vincent Kompany but Guardiola confirmed that John Stones would be available after suffering a knock to the knee against Hull City.
Key for him though, is the return of leading scorer Sergio Aguero after a four-game absence through suspension.
"Aguero is ready, he came back good from Argentina. We are happy he is back," Guardiola said.
Reporting by Ian Chadband, editing buy Ed Osmond