Liverpool against Manchester City in the quarter finals of the European Cup. Footballing royalty meets Abu Dhabi royalty. Jurgen Klopp and his high-pressing, high-intensity counterattacking blitz against Pep Guardiola’s masterful manipulation of the ball.
Since the two managers have taken over their respective clubs they have played in fascinating, often enthralling games. Klopp has shaded it with two wins to Guardiola’s one but the latter did thump Liverpool 5-0. Most pundits and journalists have widely agreed that these are the two most exciting teams in England. City, with Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva have mesmerised with their midfield mastery. The ease with which they have sliced through teams has left many worried that the Premier League might become a procession for them, with few teams able to stop them. One of them is Liverpool, who in their frontline spearheaded by Mo Salah have speed, intensity and skill to match anyone pound for pound. There is something breathless about watching Liverpool press and hound high up the pitch, forcing mistakes, compelling teams to succumb to mistakes. Both are defensively vulnerable enough to promise goals aplenty.
Tactically, both teams play into each other’s hands. Liverpool are quick and relentless off the ball, refusing time in possession but conceding space behind them. City have often found Liverpool’s first wave of pressure suffocating but get through it and the potency of their attack should wreak havoc. Similarly for the Reds, they are not playing a team who sit deep and nullify the purpose of a high-pressing game. City will attack Liverpool and be vulnerable.
There are so many interesting angles to consider to this. Klopp is the only manager with a winning record against Guardiola. Consider that the great Sir Alex Ferguson only tasted defeats. Jose Mourinho has only beaten Guardiola four times in ten years. Arsene Wenger has been dumped out of Europe each time by Guardiola and lost a League Cup final to him. Klopp has tasted more victories than defeats. There is a mutual respect between the two, Guardiola in particular acknowledging that Klopp is possibly peerless in fashioning attacking football.
Beyond that, City stole the league title from Liverpool four years ago effectively and then beat them in the League Cup final in 2016. Liverpool have regularly exposed City’s limitations at Anfield, and ended their incredible unbeaten league run this season in that astonishing 4-3 win. City’s record at Anfield is awful and since they became owned by Sheikh Mansour, Anfield remains the one ground they haven’t tasted victory in. Mostly, they haven’t even come close.
And therein lies Liverpool’s greatest weapon: the power of Anfield. Opposition on European nights have crumbled within Liverpool’s fortress. Anfield changes everything. This is something money can’t create. Anfield is not just a stadium but emotion, intensity, history and folklore all woven together. There is a spine-tingling atmosphere solely reserved for these special nights, the nights that more than anything else define Liverpool as a club carved for Europe.
Pundits have placed City as the favourites and with good reason. Similarly, they have with good reason done so only hesitantly. Liverpool’s history in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s was about irresistible brilliance. They were the benchmark. Liverpool in modern times are different, and often their greatest nights at Anfield are one of incredible escapes, the underdog engulfing the favourite through a combination of gutsy resolve and just unrelenting support.
Read their list of victims: Juventus, Chelsea, Barcelona, Arsenal, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund. In all these games, the Reds have danced with defeat and emerged the victorious survivors of a clash they were tipped to lose.
Man City should win and probably will edge it. In the modern game where free-market globalisation has created clubs with limitless spending power City have pushed the boundaries, backed by a wealthy regime that has created its prosperity off the humanitarian abuse of its migrant workers. They have the players to go all the way and fuelled by state money, to keep churning out success.
But Liverpool have Anfield. And so often down the years, that has been enough for them. It might prove again this time.