Liverpool v Man City – vintage English football rivalry

Jurgen Klopp says this will not be the title decider. OK, Jürgen. If you say so, Jürgen. Perhaps we can safely file that away with “every opponent is a tough opponent” and “we don’t look at the league table” in the catalogue of great managerial sleights of our time.

The rest of us, meanwhile, are entitled to regard Manchester City v Liverpool for what it is: a fixture that has been burning a hole in the schedule since August, that as the weeks passed was anticipated first in hope, then in expectation, and now finally in a barely disguised longing.

It is more than five years since Klopp and Pep Guardiola first clapped eyes on each other across a crowded Premier League technical area. In that time they have built a rivalry that in terms of sheer brutish footballing quality may be the finest English football has seen.

The game is fitter and faster, and more complex and refined than it has ever been. The Norwich City of 2022 would wipe the floor with Manchester United’s class of 1992. And at the vanguard of the revolution, these two coaches, these two clubs: a duel worthy of being anointed as England’s clásico, a buffet of the very finest fare this sport has to offer.

When Guardiola describes Liverpool as “the toughest opponent I have faced in my 13 years as a manager” – above sides such as José Mourinho’s Real Madrid, Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea – you get some idea of the levels here.

Not since the 1980s, perhaps before that, has English football been able to boast indisputably the best two teams in the world. And in order to grasp the magnitude of what Guardiola and Klopp have achieved it is instructive to go back to their first meeting in England, an ugly and unlovable 1-0 Liverpool win at Anfield on the last day of 2016.

Liverpool looked ragged and brittle. City looked disjointed and uncertain. The teamsheets from that day are a reminder of the crude raw materials these blue chip coaches initially had to work with: Ragnar Klavan and Emre Can, Claudio Bravo and Nicolás Otamendi. Only four players on each side are still at the club.

Gini Wijnaldum’s winning header was one of three shots on target. “We don’t want to show how good we are, we want the points,” a drained and dissatisfied Klopp insisted afterwards.

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