Fear is not something that Manchester City can say they have too much of this season. But today’s Champions League draw might have instilled some. Indeed, it might have kickstarted something very special.
If there is a team for City to fear this season, it is Liverpool. That’s not just because the Reds remain the only Premier League side to beat Pep Guardiola’s team this season, though perhaps that could play a role. But more profoundly, when City think about what they were a year ago, they must see the mental image of Liverpool staring back at them.
A year ago, City weren’t far off what they are now. At that point, Guardiola’s side were embarking on a recovery from their nadir, a mountain they’ve climbed from its beginning to where they are now: two (surely) trophies to the good and with the Champions League still in their sights. Some time around February last year, a switch flicked. A few summer additions were needed – most notably Kyle Walker and Ederson – but the Blues more or less found themselves becoming the side they are today through hard work, effort and the clicking into place of the coach’s plan.
Liverpool are an interesting parallel. They play a similar brand of attack-is-defence football: that is, if they don’t attack well, the whole system is thrown out and defending becomes impossible. Like Guardiola’s, Jurgen Klopp’s team is more than its component parts. Liverpool are as thrilling to watch when it goes right, and as frustrating when it goes wrong – and for the Anfield club, it goes wrong much more often than it does for City these days.
More importantly, though, this Champions League tie doesn’t just pit together two of the most exciting sides in Europe. It could very well be the starting point for a New Classic, a modern update on the biggest derby in English football. The last game the two played was itself a barnstormer. Almost a year to the day, a 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium saw end to end football and controversy meet in a league game. It was stunning, even if it wasn’t a title decider or a Champions League duel.
And even the meeting which is sandwiched between those two stunners, when City thrashed Liverpool 5-0, was a thrilling encounter. No one should write history and wipe that game off the face of the Earth simply because of Sadio Mane’s sending off, but it did rob us of another classic.
I don’t buy into the school of thought that the red card was the only difference between the sides, nor do I think it should it shouldn’t have been given. It was definitely a red card. But there is no doubt that it changed the game – if only because it saw Liverpool disappoint everybody by giving up and waving the white flag. It wasn’t a good look and they are to blame for depriving us of another storming game.
But in the long run, it might have done us a favour.
Over two games this season – not two legs, in the same sense, but it is still important – Liverpool were 5-0 down in the first match and 4-1 up in the second. What that tells us is that no matter what happens in the first leg of what will be an epic battle, both sides know that they will always have a chance. The evidence shows both teams that they can score goals and plenty of them.
Importantly, both know they can do it in double quick time, too: Liverpool scored three in nine minutes against City at Anfield, later in the game, City managed two in six minutes – if they were given an extra three minutes they may well have come up with an equaliser. Both teams, then, know that this tie will not be over until the whistle blows three times.
This is becoming a Titanic battle between two teams who play thrilling, entertaining football. If any Premier League side is going to challenge City for the title next season it will surely be Jurgen Klopp’s Reds.
This could be the start of a new epic rivalry. If Liverpool v Manchester United is the north west derby, the dullness with which Jose Mourinho approaches it makes that game less meaningful for the neutral – though certainly not for fans of United or Liverpool.
Pitting this City team with this Liverpool team might be the start of a new rivalry which is more attractive to everyone involved.
And the fever pitch nature of a Champions League tie under the lights at Anfield could be the pressure cooker environment to kickstart it all.