This being Liverpool on the eve of a Champions League quarter-final, the talk was of bravery, history and of fans lining the streets to give Manchester City a traditionally ear-splitting welcome. There will be noise, there will be flares; Pep Guardiola looked slightly incredulous at it all.
He explained, patiently, that having been coach of Barcelona he wasn’t exactly unused to a lively atmosphere. That Madrid and Seville had been known to make a racket, too. ‘We accept this,’ he said. ‘At these places, they like to show how strong they are.’ He clenched his upper torso, in the manner of a body-builder.
Later, on the pitch, Rodolfo Borrell, a Manchester City coach who previously worked for Liverpool’s academy, appeared to be presenting a brief stadium guide, pointing out The Kop and other areas of interest to Guardiola.
Pep Guardiola is not too concerned about the welcome his side will receive at Anfield
City’s manager had clearly forgotten the semi-final he played here with Barcelona in the UEFA Cup in 2001. His team were eliminated 1-0 on aggregate by a penalty from Gary McAllister. Maybe it was a tactical memory lapse.
Certainly one could get decent odds on a repeat of a single goal being scored over these two legs. The aggregate between these teams in the Premier League this season is 8-4 in Manchester City’s favour and few would be surprised by a total in that ball park. ‘It’s a really good opportunity for football to watch and think, “Hey this is nice, this is cool”,’ said Jurgen Klopp. Battles of Britain have not always been that way.
Probably the landmark Anfield game in the modern Champions League era was the semi-final meeting with Chelsea on May 3, 2005. Klopp was manager of mid-table Mainz at the time and the fixture was not on his radar, he said. Either that, or he had banished it from memory, dismal as it was.
Liverpool and Manchester City are the product of the risk-taking Jurgen Klopp and Guardiola
It is perhaps the most anticipated fixture in Europe and not Real Madrid versus Juventus
It was the match memorable not just for its atmosphere or its controversy — Jose Mourinho to this day claims Luis Garcia’s winner did not cross the line — but also for the brutal appraisal of former Real Madrid manager Jorge Valdano. ‘Put a s*** hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium and there are people who will tell you it’s a work of art,’ he said. ‘It’s not: it’s a s*** hanging from a stick.
‘Chelsea and Liverpool are the clearest, most exaggerated example of the way football is going: very intense, very collective, very tactical, very physical, and very direct. But, a short pass? No. A feint? No. A change of pace? No. A one-two? A nutmeg? A backheel? Don’t be ridiculous. None of that.’
Some 13 years on, the anticipation around this game is the precise opposite. Short passes, feints, pace, interchanges, high skill. Ridiculous levels of technique and excitement? Yes, all of that.
It didn’t used to be that way with the unmemorable semi-final of Liverpool and Chelsea in 2005
Liverpool and Manchester City are the product of the risk-taking Klopp and Guardiola, in the same way Liverpool and Chelsea reflected the pragmatism of Rafael Benitez and Mourinho. It is a giant feather in the cap of English football that perhaps the most anticipated fixture in Europe this week is not Real Madrid versus Juventus, but a coming together of two freewheeling Premier League clubs.
City have only won once at Anfield since Boxing Day, 1981 — a last-minute Nicolas Anelka winner settling a match in 2003 — but this was part of the legacy that Klopp did his best to play down. ‘This club is so full of history but we must write our own,’ he insisted. ‘I meet people who can tell me each goal Liverpool scored in 50 years, but at one point you need to do your own things.’
Even the boldest tipster would make this a close call. That City are only the marginal favourites despite being 18 points clear of Liverpool domestically is a reflection of a stunning performance by Klopp’s team here in January, of Liverpool’s five Champions League wins compared to Manchester City’s single semi-final appearance and also of Klopp’s record in his head-to-head meetings: six wins to Guardiola’s five, with one draw.
The aggregate between these teams in the Premier League this season is 8-4 to City
Considering Guardiola sticks only to variations of his plan A, it is felt Klopp, more than any contemporary, has worked him out. Guardiola as good as admitted it. ‘The way we play is perfect for Liverpool,’ he said. ‘They attack the space.’
Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that, as Klopp conceded. This was where bravery came in. It required special boldness to beat City, he explained; and not every team had that.
‘What Guardiola does is unbelievably difficult to defend against,’ said Klopp. ‘One touch and Leroy Sane is away, Raheem Sterling is away, it’s like being on the motorway. It’s good, but because there is not perfection in football, you can defend against it. So all I need to know is that there will be space on the pitch for us because you cannot play the way City play and be 100 per cent compact. So we need to exploit situations like that, be active and lively.
The City boss admitted ‘the way his side play is perfect for Liverpool’ as ‘they attack the space’
‘Use the spaces. Go in the challenge, try to win it. Be next to someone, try to help them. Be there. Not waiting or giving the opportunity. Be lively. Sitting back is not a solution against Manchester City. That’s how it is.
You will suffer in this game, you lose each other, you look a little silly, but then don’t be bothered — go! When you have the ball you need to be brave. We have to use the skills of my players. If you are, say, West Brom, you cannot be brave against Manchester City because you cannot attack them high or they run through you like a warm knife through butter. But we are different. So be there when there is a chance to get the ball. If we can’t do that it is very, very difficult.’
No matter how warm the welcome.