The Anfield club’s rivalry with Manchester City may not be fully fledged but it has become a byword for entertainment
Andy Hunter– The Guardian
Two giant spectaculars are taking place in Liverpool this weekend, one courtesy of the French street theatre company Royal de Luxe and the other thanks to the emergence of Jürgen Klopp’s team as a formidable obstruction in the way of Manchester City’s vast ambition. Only the former’s route around the city has been publicised, however, as Merseyside Police seek to avoid the unsavoury scenes that greeted the champions’ arrival at Anfield in April. A repeat of what both clubs delivered on the pitch last season will be embraced by those seeking a new Premier League rivalry.
Liverpool versus Manchester City does not have the history, the animosity – even accounting for a damaged City coach – or the decisive influence on silverware to be ranked among the true rivalries of the Premier League era. Not yet, anyway. “Bollocks,” was Klopp’s response when the suggestion was put to him on Friday. But the potential exists for one to take root. Anfield staged the finest Premier League game of last season when Pep Guardiola’s side suffered their first defeat in 23 league games in January, though not without a fight. Sunday provides the most eagerly anticipated contest of this campaign with the teams boasting identical unbeaten records and the two managers confident their squads have improved.
In terms of spectacle and quality, if not rivalry, it is undoubtedly the strongest the Premier League currently has to offer. Liverpool can deliver the biggest statement of their title credentials so far with a sixth consecutive home league win over City. Equally, there is no better place for Guardiola and his players to prove his point about improving on excellence than Anfield.
“I’m not sure if it is [the Premier League’s key rivalry] but that is what we have to prove,” the Liverpool manager said. “They are so strong. This team together with the club, the money they have and this manager is exceptional. It is a good match, a good combination. It makes them the biggest force at the moment together with PSG in world football. We have to battle and fight with them for different things in the league and maybe in the Champions League at one point if it comes to that again. That is it.
“They are really good and we have to prove that we are as good as we can be and we showed that in a few moments. But even if we had won at Napoli I wouldn’t sit here now and say: ‘Yes, this is the game between the two big ones, United is not there any more.’ That is obviously bollocks. We face a very strong team again and it will be very difficult again, that is all.”
Klopp believes it is folly to promote the claims of two clubs in the Premier League when the leading pack are growing ever stronger. He also did not disguise the fact that despite his record of beating a Guardiola team seven times, more than any other manager, and last season’s victories in the Premier League and Champions League, Liverpool must improve their recent record of success to be considered a genuine threat to the champions.
“We played Chelsea twice last week,” he said. “I cannot understand how we can ignore them. They are much more proven winners than we are. I’m not sure if we are much younger than the Chelsea squad but we are a good age group and we should have had time already together to reach another level. But that is our target of course. You play against these big teams only twice in a normal season and that means you have to take points in all the other games.
“Two years ago we had a fantastic record against the top six but it was like: ‘Yes, they are good against them but not so good against all the others.’ We always find something if you don’t win all of these games. That’s where we want to be but I am not sure in this moment if we are there. We will see.
“We cannot do more in a specific weekend than beating them. In this moment there is no pressure. If this was matchday 30 then we would have to see who can deal with it. Last year it was City being champions, before that it was Chelsea who were champions and we were champions something like 40 years ago. We have to see. We don’t know.”
Liverpool may be more reliant on their defensive strength than attacking quality on Sunday with Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané yet to rediscover last season’s outstanding form. Salah’s difficulties continued in the midweek Champions League defeat at Napoli where, of Liverpool’s starting XI, he received fewer passes than any player bar Naby Keïta, who was carried off injured after 19 minutes. Salah received 17 passes to Firmino’s 28 and Mané’s 23, underlining how last season’s phenomenal rise has prompted opponents to respond in kind. They remain key to Sunday’s spectacle, however, and to Klopp’s prospects of savouring his latest encounter with Guardiola.
The Liverpool manager explained: “After we drew at Chelsea last week I turned to Maurizio Sarri and he was smiling at me. He looked at me and said: ‘You enjoy that?’ I said: ‘Actually, yes I do!’ I loved that game and the City games were very good games too. I said it a few times and I will say it again: I really think the most important thing for football – the most important job of football – is entertaining people because it’s only football, nothing else.
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“We don’t save lives, we don’t create anything, we are not good in surgeries, we are only good in football. If we would not entertain the people then why would we play it? It’s not always possible unfortunately and it’s always hard work – it’s especially hard work if we’re entertaining people – but that’s really important and that’s why we have to try to create constantly or as often as possible.
“Pep’s teams are best at that and I can admit that easily because it’s so obvious and we are not bad in a few other things and that’s why we are not the most comfortable opponent for City in the past. But that means nothing for Sunday. We need to be at 100%, if not 110%, to deal with the quality of City. If we are, it could work, but only then.”