I had an immediate thought when I heard Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp exchange barbed comments ahead of Liverpool against Manchester City this week: “About time.”
There was something unnatural about the Premier League’s two leading managers competing for the title without an extra edge to their relationship.
Until the past seven days, the mutual respect was denying us a feud to match the early years of Sir Alex Ferguson v Arsene Wenger or Jose Mourinho v Rafa Benitez.
I am not encouraging all-out verbal warfare between the Manchester City and Liverpool managers, but when one club is a direct threat to the ambitions of another it is obvious the tensions, frustrations and irritations one is causing the other will surface. As long as it remains within the boundaries of good taste it is hugely entertaining. There is not a football fan among us that does not love a managerial scrap.
It would be strange if there was not the occasional spat between the coaches, like two heavyweight boxers sitting around the promoters in the build-up to a world title fight. By the end of their careers, Guardiola and Klopp already know their trophy haul will be lighter directly because of the other. That has to irk them.
Manchester City’s extraordinary run at the end of last season denied Klopp and Liverpool what, in any other year, would have been a deserved title. Whatever the appearances publicly, and whatever the consolation of being Champions League winners, this was a cause for despair on Merseyside and there is a determination not to endure a repeat.
Equally, it is not hard to imagine the annoyance at The Etihad when Liverpool won the Champions League and the global coverage dwarfed City’s achievement of an unprecedented domestic treble. City’s last couple of title wins filled the new cycle for 24 hours. Because of Liverpool’s size and popularity, a first title in 30 years at Anfield will undoubtedly generate much more media attention.
I do not believe I am exaggerating when I say the hierarchies of Liverpool and City cannot stand each other, resentments which are reflected in the fanbases. City appear to suspect Liverpool of lobbying governing bodies to investigate the legality of their transfer spending, while they make no secret of their belief that the positive coverage of the Klopp era is disproportionate when compared to Guardiola’s trophy haul, and City’s in general since the Abu Dhabi takeover. Within Liverpool, eyebrows are raised when stories emerge about fears of another attack on City's bus as happened in the Champions League quarter-final in 2018, and there was incredulity at Guardiola's comments about Sadio Mane's diving. As Klopp suggested, it certainly feels like Guardiola talks about Liverpool more than Klopp does Manchester City, and City generally seem preoccupied with how Liverpool are portrayed in the media.
These tensions have never been echoed by the managers or players, many of whom appear to be friends as they are international team-mates. I do not recall any interview with Liverpool or City players speaking ill of their rivals, and the admiration between the coaches is obvious.
What made Guardiola’s dig at Mane so surprising - and may explain why he subsequently backtracked - is it served only to inflame the ill-will at Anfield before City’s visit, finally provoking Klopp to retaliate.
Whether Guardiola had made the remark or not, Anfield will be at its most hostile on Sunday, but he has not helped his players with the timing. These games are now comparable to the visits of Chelsea when Mourinho took over in 2004. He too had a habit of being disparaging about Liverpool in the build-up to Anfield visits and people would wonder how we felt it in the dressing room.
Honestly? We absolutely loved it. You know all the cliches you hear about motivation and helping the manager’s team talks... it is absolutely true. It only needs the suggestion of an insult to enable a coach to fire up his players, and certainly in Liverpool’s case whip up The Kop. Mourinho often succeeded as much as a rallying cry from the manager or captain - and we readily accepted the invitation to use whatever he said. Klopp will do likewise.
The Liverpool manager’ reference to City’s ‘tactical fouling’ was a shot back, echoing comments by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last season. Solskjaer’s remarks angered City so much they rushed out statistics to the press in an attempt to show they commit fewer fouls than their rivals.
Guardiola seemed to acknowledge his miscalculation by refusing to comment about Liverpool in midweek. Some suggested he was being cynical and deliberate with his earlier observations about Mane. They struck me as more emotional than calculated.
Over the last month Liverpool have secured seven extra points just when it seemed they would draw, or even lose a game - points that would give the Premier League table a different complexion. Mane has been fundamental to that by winning two penalties, one of which was contentious against Leicester City.
Having heard Mane had scored the last-minute winner last Saturday - and been booked for diving in the game at Aston Villa - Guardiola betrayed his emotions in the TV interview following his own team’s late win over Southampton. For a brief moment coming off the pitch last week he must have thought the gaps was down to four or even three points, only to recognise it could be nine by Sunday night. Why wouldn’t that infuriate you? It is nothing to do with ‘mind games’. Guardiola sounded more like a fan who could not hide how fed up he was that his direct rival had won in the last minute again. If Mane had not been the match-winner, I doubt he would have bitten on the question.
Klopp’s response 48 hours later seemed more considered as he had time to think about what to say. He has home advantage and there is no manager better at utilising that.
He knows Anfield is in Guardiola’s head. The City manager admitted as much in an honest interview during which he was hugely flattering to Liverpool at the end of last season.
“The motto “This is Anfield” is no marketing spin,” he said. “There’s something about it that you will find in no other stadium in the world. They score a goal in the next five minutes you feel that you’ll receive another four.”
Liverpool versus City is now the biggest game of the season for both managers, for the Premier League, and arguably the most attractive fixture in world football given how both teams play.
There have been several huge Premier League games for Liverpool recently, particularly last season and going back to the 2014 season, but none which have given the club a chance to assume such a strong position. A Liverpool win would make it very difficult for City to retain their title. A City win will re-establish them as favourites, knowing the only difference between the teams would be a home win at The Etihad later this season.
I wrote last season we were in the midst of the great Premier League rivalry of the era. We cannot be sure how many more battles between these two supercoaches remain so we should cherish every second of it while we can. There is nothing phoney about this ‘war’ between the clubs and the managers.