Pep Guardiola might say Anfield is ‘lovely’ but the City boss has a torrid record there
In Manchester, Guardiola would fancy his team’s chances. A win and Liverpool’s six-point lead at the top of the table would become three. Game on. At Anfield, it’s different. City never win there, not under Guardiola, not under anyone in recent times. If Liverpool win, then six points become nine. Game over?
Pep Guardiola’s Anfield woes make for a fascinating narrative ahead of Sunday’s showdown
Jurgen Klopp has galvanised Liverpool and made them genuine title contenders to City
‘I don’t know if it will be over,’ said Guardiola on Friday. ‘It will be more difficult because last season they lost one game and this season they are unbeaten. So you have to imagine they are not going to lose too many games. But the season is long and a lot of games and situations can happen.’
Were Guardiola merely a football fan, or a manager working in a different country, Liverpool would be his kind of team and Anfield his kind of stadium.
As it is, that cauldron at the other end of the East Lancs Road has come to represent some kind of Room 101 to the game’s greatest modern coach.
City have lost there three times in Guardiola’s three seasons — twice in the league and once in Europe — while the relative satisfaction of last year’s 0-0 draw was tempered by the fact the visitors missed a penalty right at the death.
So when Guardiola said that he needs a strong Liverpool to drive his own team to even higher levels after back-to-back title wins, one also senses that deep down the Catalan rather just wishes that Jurgen Klopp and his players would simply go away.
‘They’re an exceptional team and the stadium is an influence of course,’ he said.
‘The history speaks for itself. Of course it’s something special, but I think it’s more about the quality of the team and what they do, the quality of the players and the manager that they have. I believe more in that.
‘Right now it’s one of the toughest ones. In fact right now I would say it’s the toughest stadium in Europe to go to.’
Riyad Mahrez missed a penalty as City were unable to beat Liverpool at Anfield last season
Liverpool and City are rivals in a very real sense these days. From the moment City felt Liverpool staff deliberately broke the buzzer that signals the approach to kick-off in the away dressing room before a defeat back in 2015 to the violation of the City team bus two seasons ago, enmity has grown.
City feel Liverpool players are treated favourably in the Player of the Season voting — particularly the one decided by the football writers — while Liverpool believe Sunday’s opponents are not properly policed in what Klopp and others have described as ‘tactical fouls’.
Within all that, however, lies a relatively harmonious relationship between the coaches. Guardiola spoke to Klopp in the moments after Liverpool’s Champions League victory in Madrid — even though his congratulatory call was originally intended for former City physio Lee Nobes — and this week’s to and fro about Sadio Mane and his propensity to fall at the feet of defenders will not have impacted on a mutual respect first formed when the men opposed each other in the German Bundesliga.
Asked about another visit to Anfield, Guardiola said: ‘I love it, I like it. I didn’t like what happened to the bus outside the stadium but in the stadium when they support the team, it’s perfect, it’s lovely. That’s why we’re involved in this business, to be involved in this kind of experience in these stadiums.
‘The quality they have is supreme. If you play high they make movements in behind.
‘They are so fast and when you defend deep they attack a lot of players, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, who are incredible crossers, and with good headers in the box.
Guardiola said earlier this week that Sadio Mane (left) is a diver and it caused a backlash
‘They are incredible at the back and at second balls with set-pieces. It’s a real complete team and as a club we need this kind of rival after winning back-to-back titles.
‘Liverpool are the kind of rival to make us put another step forward to understand that is the level we have to reach in the next years.’
Liverpool’s standing as the bookmakers’ favourites on Sunday will only be bolstered by the absence of City goalkeeper Ederson.
Whatever Guardiola may say, replacement Claudio Bravo never looked composed enough for Premier League football during the two-thirds of a season he played rather calamitously for City in 2016-17.
Nevertheless, City have a better chance this weekend than some make out. Liverpool’s football has not been as good as their results recently and they have not kept a clean sheet in any of the last eight attempts.
If Liverpool are vulnerable it is when the opposition find space to run between Klopp’s midfield and his back four. Norwich almost exploited it on day one and it has been a theme ever since.
When Guardiola suggested on Friday that he had a plan to implement at Anfield, this may have been it.
The City boss was unhappy with the welcome his side got at Anfield in the Champions League
Guardiola goes to his biggest title rival without his main keeper – with Claudio Bravo set to play
‘What are the weak points of Liverpool?’ asked Guardiola of himself. ‘Well, it’s difficult to find it but we have an idea with the way we are going to play and we are going to try.’
For City this feels like a big weekend but for Liverpool maybe it feels even bigger. They, after all, are the club without a league title for 29 years. Last New Year they took their juggernaut to City in search of a 10-point lead and left with an advantage cut to just four.
But ‘This is Anfield’ and it may be different. But Guardiola would take a draw right now and don’t be surprised if he gets one.