As attention turns back to the Premier League, one of modern football’s great rivalries resumes – Manchester City against Liverpool.
With nine games to go, City have a one-point lead. They meet at the Etihad on April 10 and in the FA Cup semi-finals a week later. All eyes are on who will prevail.
Will Pep Guardiola stay at City beyond next year? Will Mo Salah remain at Anfield? And why don’t these two great clubs like each other any more?
Our City reporter JACK GAUGHAN and Liverpool expert DOMINIC KING sat down to talk it all over. Football Editor IAN LADYMAN posed the questions.
Liverpool (left) and Manchester City are battling it out for the Premier League title once again
DID YOU THINK THE TITLE RACE WAS OVER WHEN CITY WERE 14 POINTS CLEAR? I DID…
DOMINIC KING: The day that made me think Liverpool were still in it was when they beat Brentford on January 16. It was routine but Jurgen Klopp made a point of running to the Kop with the fist pumps. It was: ‘Come on, let’s get going’ and from that point they took off. That was the day he mobilised the troops.
JACK GAUGHAN: I’ve been looking back over our coverage and thankfully we never said it was over!
DK: You said the champagne was on ice, though…
JG: That was a vodka on ice joke after Jack Grealish’s well-documented night out!
DK: Very true!
JG: City have faltered against Spurs and Crystal Palace – two relative bogey teams. Anyone who watches City regularly knows they throw in the odd dodgy performance, which to the outside world is always majorly surprising.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp was particularly animated after they beat Brentford in January
ARE CITY NOT AS FLAWLESS AS WE ALL THINK THEN?
JG: Sometimes when teams sit so deep, City struggle to break them down. The Spurs game was a good example. City were chasing and throwing dozens of crosses into the box. Whenever they are doing that, it’s a sure sign they are struggling. That was the sort of day when you thought they could have done with a No 9 like Harry Kane to get his head on something.
WHO WERE THEY CROSSING TO? BERNARDO SILVA?
JG: It was Phil Foden! They were desperate for a striker last summer and didn’t manage to get one. It could still come back to haunt them — we don’t know yet.
AT LIVERPOOL, DO THEY SEE CITY AS HAVING WEAKNESSES?
DK: Before the season, people at Liverpool saw two scenarios: City with Kane and without Kane. The impression I got was that if City had signed Kane then it becomes a battle for second place.
SPURS WERE IN DISARRAY IN JANUARY. WHY DIDN’T CITY GO BACK FOR KANE?
JG: There are two things there. City were met with a brick wall by Tottenham in the summer and there are only so many times you can bang your head against that. But also their first-choice target, Erling Haaland, is available in a matter of months. It would be silly to rip up your transfer strategy for the sake of half a season.
Harry Kane haunted City with a virtuoso display as Tottenham won 3-2 at the Etihad last month
CAN LIVERPOOL WIN ALL THEIR REMAINING FIXTURES?
DK: I can’t see them winning every single game. I don’t think it’s possible with the fixtures. City, Everton, Man United… Watford on Saturday isn’t going to be easy.
JG: United’s a gimme, right?
DK: Oh yeah, absolutely. Liverpool scored five at Old Trafford in October, so they will be disappointed if they don’t get 10 at Anfield! Seriously though, if they were to get two draws and seven wins, maybe one of those would have to be at City on April 10. That could do it.
LIVERPOOL LOST MANE AND SALAH TO AFCON IN JANUARY. DID IT SPUR THE TEAM ON?
DK: There were other things. They reached the Carabao Cup final without them, progressed in the FA Cup and Luis Diaz has been an unbelievable signing. There wasn’t the old reliance on Salah and Sadio Mane. There have been big performances everywhere.
Livewire Luis Diaz has been a breath of fresh air at Liverpool since joining from Porto in January
I ALWAYS USED TO THINK CITY HAD THE DEEPEST SQUAD…
DK: Jack’s shaking his head!
HAVE LIVERPOOL CAUGHT UP?
JG: City actually have fewer senior professionals than many of their rivals. Three or four injuries can leave them a bit short. There have been games this year where they’ve only had 12 outfielders available and, OK, those players are unbelievably good, but there’s not much wiggle room. Guardiola’s ethos is he wants a smaller squad, with quality everywhere.
I WONDER WHAT CLUBS LIKE BURNLEY THINK OF THAT…
JG: What I’m saying is that the manager chooses to have that size of squad and when they do have injuries it can leave them a little short. I do think Liverpool have caught up in terms of squad depth – that is self-evident. They are not as reliant on the front three any more. Am I right, Dom?
DK: Yeah. If Liverpool do it this year they’ll look back on the Diaz transfer as the seminal moment. The lift, the options it gave. A masterclass of business. You have to hold your hand up as a reporter and say I didn’t see it coming.
DIAZ AND JOTA SETTLED WELL. IT DOESN’T ALWAYS HAPPEN…
DK: It comes down to quality. Jamie Carragher once told me a story about Xabi Alonso’s first training session in 2004. Carra said he knew he was going to be brilliant from the first time he passed the ball. The ping, the noise it made. If you have outstanding quality, it can be seamless.
GREALISH HAS TAKEN LONGER, HOW IS HE PLAYING NOW?
JG: Guardiola is happy with everything he is contributing until he is in the penalty box. At times, he needs to be more selfish. He’s thinking of his team-mates too much and forgetting that he cost £100million. I don’t know if it is taking him time to feel like he belongs in that environment.
City boss Pep Guardiola wants to see Jack Grealish (centre) be more ruthless in the final third
WHAT ABOUT NIGHTS OUT?
JG: When these things happen under Pep, it is like a bad performance. Pep will go mad for 24 hours and then it will be forgotten. But Jack is getting better every game. It will be interesting to see where he plays in the future. You saw him play well with Raheem Sterling for England on Tuesday. They have only started eight times together for City and are in competition with each other on the left-hand side of a three. But they can play together for England so…
I HAVE DETECTED A SPIKINESS ABOUT KLOPP THIS SEASON…
DK: I know what it is like to be on the end of a question that he doesn’t like but I don’t have a problem with that. What is different this season is he is absolutely in the zone. He’s got total belief in his team and knows they are on the verge of potentially achieving something very special. Before the Carabao Cup final we spent 30 minutes with him and he was in great form. I used the phrase ‘petrol in the tank’ in my piece because it was totally different to 12 months ago. He was shattered after losing his mother, Elisabeth, and drained by the way his team were playing. He looked – understandably – browbeaten.
WILL PEP LEAVE WHEN HIS CONTRACT EXPIRES IN 2023?
JG: My instinct, and hope as a journalist, is he stays and signs a one-year contract. But I think in a similar way to Klopp, if he wins the Champions League then he has nothing left to achieve, has he? His disappointment is actually that they haven’t won more FA Cups. They have been in four semis on the trot and only won one. He always plays a strong team. It will be strong against Liverpool, for sure!
Guardiola’s current contract at City expires at the end of next season with his future uncertain
THESE TWO CLUBS DON’T LIKE EACH OTHER. WHAT IS GOING ON?
JG: Apart from the fantastic football rivalry, there are two things. There is a boardroom thing and a hostility that has been stoked up by local media and social media. City allege Liverpool accessed their scouting network in 2013 and City were wound up when a Liverpool director tweeted a picture of a canary after City had lost to Norwich. And I haven’t even mentioned Klopp’s comments about City’s spending…
DK: It goes back to 2014 when City were upset that Liverpool got more column inches than them during that title race. But Liverpool were 33/1 outsiders and City were odds-on favourites! City felt there was a journalistic narrative that Liverpool should win it. It has festered away. The bus incident (Liverpool fans attacked the City team bus outside Anfield in April 2018) was a disgrace and City have every right to feel embittered that nobody was arrested for that. It was appalling and I am not sure those wounds will ever heal.
LIVERPOOL’S MOST-HATED RIVALS ARE STILL UNITED, RIGHT?
DK: It’s Everton. When the fixtures come out, it’s them and United they look for. Then it’s City.
DOES THAT ANNOY CITY FANS?
DK: Surely City’s biggest game is Manchester United?
JG: I think it’s Liverpool now…
IS THERE A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE MANAGERS?
DK: Nothing more than cordial. They know each other but they are never going to be friends.
JG: Guardiola doesn’t really speak to his rivals. Klopp and Guardiola are different people, aren’t they?
Klopp and Guardiola are cordial with one another but that’s how as far their relationship goes
HAS KLOPP INVESTED IN LASER PENS? HE WON’T MIND SALAH MISSING THE WORLD CUP…
DK: I wouldn’t be so sure. The responsibility Mo has for Egypt and the depth of feeling he has for his country, he will be unbelievably broken after missing that penalty. Liverpool will be worried about a possible hangover.
WILL SALAH STAY? THAT CONTRACT REMAINS UNSIGNED.
DK: Yes, I think he will.
UNITED THINK WHEN KLOPP AND PEP LEAVE, THE TWO CLUBS WILL COME BACK TO THE PACK…
DK: That’s nonsense.
JG: Both clubs are set up better than United were when Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013. So I disagree, too. To use a football term, both clubs are very solid behind the frontman. Recruitment, for example, will stay the same.
DOM, I SENSE YOU ARE ABOUT TO STEAM IN OFF A LONG RUN-UP…
DK: Yes, I did say nonsense and for once I wasn’t talking about what Jack said! United had chances to hire Guardiola and Klopp, by the way. Yes, of course the clubs will come back slightly.
We are not watching real football from Liverpool and City at the moment. This is the stuff of fantasy. This is a standard we have never seen in the Premier League before. They have changed the game, changed expectations.
They have turned failure to win a game into a disaster and that is unheard of. Yes, there will be a regression but if I were Manchester United, I wouldn’t be holding my breath.
I THINK CITY’S LITTLE DIP IS OVER AND THEY WILL WIN THE LEAGUE. AM I RIGHT?
JG: I think City will just do enough. There doesn’t seem that much excitement about them at the moment and that is strange. But I think they will get there in the end.
DK: If Liverpool win at the Etihad, they will win the league.