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It was the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich who called soccer ‘the ballet of the masses’ and if there are two managers who have done their best this season to elevate the beautiful game into something more than just winning, it is Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.
Football lovers around the world and in England especially are licking their lips at the possibility of an encounter that has all the makings of being a classic.
The tie has been given extra spice for two reasons. Firstly, Liverpool are the only Premier League side to have beaten Manchester City in the league this season and, secondly, when it comes to upsetting the applecart in similar confrontations, Liverpool are a side that has ‘previous’.
Back on May 3, 2005 Chelsea turned up at Anfield for a Champions League second-leg semi-final tie against Liverpool following a goalless draw in the first leg. They arrived as champions, a full 33 points ahead of a fifth-placed Liverpool and left heartbroken after being dumped out out of the tournament following Luis Garcia’s now famous ‘ghost’ goal.
Mourinho told the Chelsea players after the warm up that Anfield did not play that night. Avram Grant used similar wards when he put in the blackboard and under number nine the word ‘Anfield’.
“I keep hearing you all talk about Anfield. Is he a striker? Does he score goals”. They both tried to play down the effect of the stadium…. because they knew this very well.
Liverpool looked destined to win the Champions League in 2004-05 and so it proved following a final against AC Milan in Istanbul and a bizarre unfurling storyline that could not have been dreamed up by an entire roomful of Hollywood’s most imaginative scriptwriters.
It couldn’t happen again… could it?
Putting aside for a minute the history and the passionate Anfield crowd and atmosphere which guarantees that a trip to Anfield for any game, never mind a Champions League quarter-final, can be as enjoyable for the opposition as root canal surgery, there are aspects to this game that suggest that this is a tie that will be too close to call.
For me there is one tactical element that is absolutely crucial and that is that both teams are absolutely excellent at exploiting those areas where their opponents are at their most vulnerable.
Against Crystal Palace, Liverpool struggled for long periods of the game to build from the back leaving them with little option other than to play a lot of long balls out of defence. It has happened before. Nobody is better at stopping you from building from the back than Pep’s Manchester City side.
This could actually turn out to be even more crucial than Liverpool’s much discussed vulnerability in defence which many people are saying will be the ultimate determinant of this much-awaited fixture.
Poor defensive lines and organisation are situations best exploited from set pieces and that is not – I don’t think – where City are at their most deadly.
But City are not without their achilles heel which also happens to potentially play to Liverpool’s greatest strength.
Put simply, one of City’s main strengths and tactics is the playing of an almost absurdly high line, except that that also comes with a vulnerability because of the spaces left behind the defence when pushing forward.
It is then that you need men upfront with pace to burn and Liverpool in the shape of Salah, Firmino and Mané have them in abundance.
Which, of course, accounts for the totally different outcomes of their two league meetings so far this season, a 5-0 home victory for City and a 4-3 home win for Liverpool.
The bookies have Manchester City as slight favourites but nothing like as far in front as their respective form guides would suggest they should be.
So take your pick 5-0, 0-5, 4-3 or 3-4, you decide; rule nothing out, except perhaps 0-0.
But what really makes this game special is that, despite the differences between the two coaches, they both share one major thing in common which is an overwhelming commitment to the ethos that in addition to winning, one of their traits is a sense of obligation to thrill and entertain the playing public.
That, aside from any results, is what makes them stand out as great coaches.
Guardiola has never suggested that his way is either the best or the only way, but merely that it is his way and all he has wanted to do is to prove that it could succeed wherever it was played, while Klopp, although singing from a different song sheet is no less convinced with his ideology nor is any less obsessed with the game that his counterpart is.
For years people have been chuntering on about how competitive they perceive the Premier League to be, particularly when set against their perceived one-sidedness of Spain’s La Liga.
Now the CIES Football Observatory website has published figures that show this season, in games where there is a differential of three or more goals between teams, then the least competitive of the major five European leagues is in fact the Premier League with 22% of all games finishing with one side three or more goals ahead.
Only the Cypriot league and Champions League itself are less competitive, while the Bundesliga is deemed the most competitive with only 11.1% of all games finishing by a margin of three goals or more. With La Liga the figure is 17.9%.
Imagine now for a minute if the Premier League had two teams that dominated as per the old Barcelona/Real Madrid days. Just how uncompetitive would the super competitive Premier League look then. So it is all relative.
In fact, the truth is of course that they should have, because the notion that Mourinho has had far more of a difficult task to rebuild United than Pep has had at City is errant nonsense; the customary Mou smokescreen spread by the Portuguese manager to mask his team’s shortcomings.
Things could not have been more equal when both men took over at the start of the 2016-17 season. On arrival at their respective clubs both teams had 66 points from the previous season; both sides had played 38, won 19, drawn 9 and lost 10 games.
Same points, same possibilities to change squad, same possibilities to keep/get rid of players, same possibilities to improve what you already had. The truth is that at United, for the most part, the wrong players have been signed and with just a few exceptions (Lingard, Young, McTominay perhaps) the players that were already there haven’t really got any better.
Mourinho’s constant bleating about an uneven playing field is delusional even though it is true that over the two years Pep Guardiola has spent around €100m more. That said it is fatuous to imagine Jose having to go in on bended knees to ask for more money to buy players.
Mou’s two years in charge have seen him spend a net €290,75m although that doesn’t take into consideration the ‘free’ transfer that saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic earn £367,640 a week plus an eye-watering incentive of £143,000 a goal depending on when it was scored. Crikey, no wonder he celebrated when he found the neta!
The following season the ‘swap’ of Henrich Mkhitaryan for Alexis Sanchez ensured the Chilean striker would earn £26m a year or put another way, and assuming he was on a 35 hour week, £14,285.71p an hour. In seven league appearances since arriving at Old Trafford he has scored twice which suddenly makes Zlatan’s £’s per goal figures look like an absolute bargain.
Back to the Champions League and who is going to win this all English club encounter? On paper everything points to Manchester City although Liverpool, those party-poopers extraordinaire, would be the first to tell you that football is not played on paper.
I can’t wait.