Hello. Go back to the start of this decade and the manager who really gave Pep Guardiola the heebie-jeebies was Jose Mourinho. It was Mourinho’s Internazionale side who denied Guardiola’s Barcelona another Champions League title with a resolute counterattacking performance in 2010; it was Mourinho’s Real Madrid who took the La Liga title off Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2012. Fast forward to 2016 and some pundits reckoned that Mourinho’s arrival in Manchester at the same time as the Catalan was going to be the Premier League’s defining rivalry. Not quite, of course. Time moves on and a new nemesis has emerged to keep Guardiola up at night. His name, as you well know, is Jurgen Klopp.
It’s become obvious that nobody troubles Guardiola more than Liverpool’s manager, who has a 7-5 winning record over his Manchester City counterpart after their spells in England and Germany. There’s been less heavy metal football from Klopp this season, but that hasn’t hurt Liverpool’s assault on the Premier League title. They head to the Etihad Stadium with a seven-point lead over the champions and it could be another damp squib of a title race if they stretch their advantage further this evening. Liverpool, who remain unbeaten after 20 games, have a chance to make one hell of a statement. Few people envisaged such a scenario developing at the start of the season, but it’s clear that Klopp isn’t overawed by taking on Guardiola. They meet on a level playing field and instead of hanging on to City’s coattails, it’s Liverpool who are threatening to sprint into the distance.
This one is fascinatingly poised. In November all the talk was of City going another season unbeaten or breaking the 100-point barrier. When Liverpool grabbed that bizarre last-minute winner in the Merseyside derby at the start of December, it almost felt like the race had been prolonged for another week or two. Yet the picture has changed in the past month. One theory is that City are so geared towards achieving footballing perfection that they don’t know how to react when their supremacy is challenged. They’ve stuttered since losing to Chelsea, giving Liverpool a leg-up after defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester City over the festive period. They’ve started making sloppy mistakes and have looked mentally uncertain during their moment of self-doubt. Perhaps it’s a flaw in Guardiola’s approach; his teams have always been liable to self-implode when challenged. It could be a personality glitch.
Either way, the question now is whether City are capable of playing catch-up. That’s hard to call. None of Guardiola’s titles have been won from losing positions, whether with Barca, Bayern or City; they’ve mostly tended to race out in front early on and cruise from there. Mind you, it does feel slightly weird to say that all the pressure’s on City. Liverpool, after all, are looking to scratch the most irritating of itches and satisfy their yearning for a first league title since 1990. There’s still so much football to play, but it must already feel tantalisingly close. It remains to be seen how they’ll cope with the weight of history on their shoulders, especially if their lead is cut to four points tonight.
For now, though, the vibe is different to the 2013-14 season. At the moment it’s hard to see Liverpool slipping and giving the ball to a Demba Ba type. They feel mature and controlled. While they’re a devastating attacking force with Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane up front, they’ve also developed a knack for grinding out results. With Alisson Becker in goal and Virgil Van Dijk at the back, they’ve only let in four goals. They’ll fancy their chances against City. They can open up a nine-point lead over Spurs again.
Then again they know the size of the task facing them here. According to Klopp, City are still the best team in the world. “It is one of the most difficult games you can play in the modern football world, away at City,” he says. And you can see his point. When they are at their best, there’s nothing quite like a Guardiola side in full flow. They’re far too good to be written off yet. For Guardiola, though, the challenge is to get his players thinking clearly again. Immaculate focus is required against a team Liverpool’s focus – on the pitch and on the touchline.
Kick-off: 8pm GMT.