Jurgen Klopp did his best to suppress one of those big smiles but, by the end of the question, it had become impossible. The time had come to speak his mind about Pep Guardiola.
‘Not sure if I ever told Pep but… I like him, it’s true!’ said Liverpool’s manager. ‘From time to time, I annoy him with things I say in press conferences that are not meant to say anything bad about him or Man City, but then somebody on the City staff tells him, “Klopp said this or that!”
‘I can see in his press conference that he gets really angry. Sorry for that! No, look, I respect him a lot.
Jurgen Klopp was in a relaxed mood as he spoke about Liverpool’s game with Man City
Klopp and Guardiola have had their differences but they have huge respect for each other
‘We think we know a lot about each other but we actually don’t. We meet each other for football games. Two years ago, we had a few situations where we went together to Manchester for awards.
‘Our families met. I can tell you that somebody with a family like Pep Guardiola must be a good person because his missus and kids are outstanding. That is what is important to me. So, during the game, whatever he says and whatever I say is not that important.’
It was striking that Klopp was in such a relaxed mood. There were points during last season when such an inquiry about his relationship with Manchester City’s manager would have been greeted with scowls and suspicion. The German, unquestionably, was frazzled by his team’s fraying form.
Back on an even keel, however, thanks to Liverpool’s promising start, Klopp felt comfortable enough to elaborate about Guardiola and the unique demands that are required to try to match the teams and formations that the Catalan concocts.
Guardiola has been posing questions of Klopp since they first went head to head on a blisteringly hot night in Dortmund in 2013 in the German Super Cup, and the challenge has been to try and keep pace. It is doubtful the pair will ever socialise but, in many ways, they need each other.
Guardiola has been posing questions of Klopp since they first went head to head in 2013
Guardiola was also complimentary of Klopp, saying the German had made him a better coach
‘He helped me, his teams helped me be a better manager,’ Guardiola acknowledged in response. ‘He put me at another level to think about football and prove myself to be a better manager, with our teams, to try to beat them. That’s the reason I’m still in this business.
‘Jurgen is one to challenge you to make a step forward. We did it in Germany, and here in England for many years. We’ve had many competitions. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Both teams have the same idea and go out to try to score goals in different ways.
‘He is quicker than us. But we both try to win the games.’
That is what makes this latest rumble so fascinating. There was a sense of inevitability about the outcome of the last fixture in February, when City caught Liverpool at their lowest ebb and pummelled them 4-1, but this one is loaded with intrigue. Without question, Anfield will have been on Guardiola’s mind way in advance of this huge week that has featured trips to Stamford Bridge and the Parc des Princes.
Klopp claimed he was sorry for any words taken out of context towards Guardiola in the past
City were fabulous in beating Chelsea seven days ago and it would be foolish to think they won’t perform similarly on Merseyside.
It is why Klopp has been equally deep in thought about the task that is coming his way, working out how to block the avenues that City’s symphonic passing can create. High stakes create high tension and one thing guaranteed on Sunday is there will be combustion at some point.
‘I want to win desperately, he wants to do that, and we are completely different personalities,’ said Klopp. ‘But I like and respect him and it’s one of the biggest challenges in football to face his teams because they are good! I like that as well because it is one of these games where you…’ He paused for a moment to find the right words.
‘Look, when people say about the Premier League, the Bundesliga, Champions League or whatever, at this level there is no mercy for mistakes,’ Klopp said. ‘If you make a mistake you get punished and that is pretty much the game against Man City always.
‘So you had better not make a lot of mistakes because otherwise you will get a knock. But if you don’t — at least if you are Liverpool — then you have a chance and I really think it is interesting to give it a try.’
‘If you make a mistake against Man City you always get punished,’ said Klopp on facing Pep
Here was another notable snippet. The fact that Klopp highlighted his team’s potential, even only in passing, indicates where he is in his thinking. A blistering September, when they scored 20 goals in six matches, shows the zest has returned to their play.
During their bleak midwinter, when City were one of six teams in succession to ransack Anfield, Klopp never felt confident that his team could properly compete.
But now the opposite is true and the prospect of trying to outwit Guardiola excites him.
This is not a managerial rivalry built on enmity or mind games, the kind of which that were commonplace 20 years ago, but it is one that has enabled both men to fashion teams that have played some of the best football in a generation.
There is no love lost between the clubs in general but the respect between the men overseeing operations has made this the must-see fixture of the season. Klopp versus Guardiola is as good as it gets. Prepare for the fireworks.