Every now and then, shifts in the dynamics of the Premier League move a new rivalry to the forefront of English football. Perhaps the first, most significant one of the Premier League era was Arsenal and Manchester United, while recent years have seen more natural geographical rivals dominate the top flight in the form of Chelsea and Tottenham.
But with historic foes in decline, the level of intensity between Liverpool and Manchester City has steadily escalated in recent years, reaching a point where both are now the best two teams in the English game and both sets of fans feel a genuine sense of animosity towards each other.
They’re set for another collision course this Sunday in a 4.30pm kickoff at Anfield, but how exactly has this rivalry become so fierce, and what journey did it take to reach the pinnacle of the Premier League? Football FanCast take a look back at eleven moments that made the Liverpool vs Manchester City what it is today…
Very much the prototype for this season’s title bout, Manchester City looked all set to walk their way to a second Premier League crown with bitter rivals Manchester United capitulating under David Moyes but out of the woodwork emerged an unlikely challenger in Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool. And for a short while, the Reds were even in pole position after an epic clash at Anfield made all the more iconic by it coinciding with the anniversary of the Hillsbrough disaster.
City pulled level after Liverpool scored twice early on, but Philippe Coutinho had the final say in a match remembered for not only scintillating attacking football but also Steven Gerrard’s infamous post-match declaration – ‘don’t let this slip’. Slip Liverpool, and Gerrard, did as City eventually beat them to the title. But this was the first time in the Premier League era that Liverpool and City found themselves as direct competitors for the competition’s ultimate honour.
Liverpool certainly didn’t have too many complaints about the £49million fee Manchester City paid for Raheem Sterling but the manner of the departure left a sour taste. That was partly due to Scouse snobbery, chiefly the sheer number of Liverpool pundits who simply couldn’t comprehend the idea of the club’s best young player joining a divisional rival with a better chance of winning trophies, but also Sterling’s incredibly ill-advised interview with BBC Sport in which he explained his reluctance to sign a new deal at Anfield.
Liverpool fans still detest Sterling, Manchester City fans still sing about him being top of the league. Common ground won’t be found any time soon.
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Liverpool’s fear factor over Manchester City is often thought of as a recent development but it most likely harks back to the opening months of Jurgen Klopp’s tenure and his first trip to the Etihad Stadium as Reds boss. With Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho ripping City apart so relentlessly on the counter-attack through short yet sweeping passing moves, this match served as the template for Klopp’s vision of his Liverpool team – one that mercilessly hit key divisional rivals fast and hard.
It also came at a time of the season when City were in first place, but that defeat pushed them down to third and highlighted the frailties of a defence still relying on Eliaquim Mangala and Martin Demichelis. They’d eventually finish the campaign in fourth, resulting in Manuel Pellegrini’s departure.
It certainly doesn’t have the personal bitterness of his rivalry with Jose Mourinho, but in appointing Pep Guardiola Manchester City imported the biggest managerial duel of the Bundesliga to the Premier League. Despite boasting far superior resources at Bayern Munich, Guardiola never quite got the better of his Borussia Dortmund counterpart, both coming out of their eight meetings in German football with four wins apiece.
And since moving to the Premier League, it’s actually Klopp who has the upper hand in this continent-spanning rivalry. He now boasts eight wins to Guardiola’s five, including three on the bounce.
2016/17 saw Chelsea and Tottenham’s rivalry move to the forefront of the English game, but Liverpool and Manchester City were still bubbling away on the edges of centre-stage. Going through something of a transition during Guardiola’s first season in charge, City could just about manage third place, whereas Liverpool left it late to secure a top four finish as well – the importance of which only became truly evident the season after.
Not exactly a watershed moment for the rivalry, but one that highlighted both clubs as near equals during a season in which their final encounter resulted in a telling 1-1 draw.
It wasn’t exactly billed as a table-topping clash but drama was expected as Liverpool travelled to the Etihad Stadium at the start of the 2017/18 campaign, following a summer in which City had spent big to revolutionise Guardiola’s squad – chiefly in the full-back and goalkeeping departments.
And drama is exactly what we got as an end-to-end opening 37 minutes climaxed with Sadio Mane seeing a controversial red card for a high boot on City’s new No.1 Ederson, who would go on to become a key cog in Guardiola’s title-winning side. Down to ten men away from home, against arguably the most dominant team in Premier League history, Liverpool would lose the match 5-0 as cries of injustice could be heard from Merseyside. The Reds though, wouldn’t have to wait long to get their own back.
Manchester City went to Anfield in January 2018 with dreams of replicating Arsenal’s Invincibles season, having won 20 and drawn two of their first 23 Premier League games. But in another epic encounter on Merseyside, the Reds brought the Citizens crashing down – this time soaring to a ninth-minute lead and then taking complete control just after an hour with their fourth goal of the afternoon.
City hit back to create a cagey final few minutes, with the final score resting at 4-3. It wouldn’t have any real impact on the Premier League table but certainly inflicted significant psychological damage, announcing Liverpool as the best-placed side in English football to counteract City through their own dynamic and offensive style of play.
Liverpool once again got the better of Manchester City just three months later, this time in a double-legged Champions League bout. The Reds charged to a victory on Merseyside in eerily similar fashion, scoring thrice within the first half an hour, and then made light work of the return leg at the Etihad Stadium – eventually winning 5-1 on aggregate.
It confirmed prior suspicions that Liverpool boasted the psychological edge over Guardiola’s City team and a style of play that ripped through the Spaniard’s tiki-taka philosophy, but perhaps the most significant consequence was the game’s role in taking Liverpool to last season’s Champions League final – the competition City’s owners are most desperate to win.
Likewise, that run in Europe had a transformative effect on this Liverpool team, confirming them as the second-best club in English football and proving that nothing was beyond their reach, even if their domestic campaign resulted in merely another fourth-place finish.
Along the way though, the Anfield clash was marred by Liverpool fans attacking the Manchester City bus before kickoff. Much like the Sterling saga, it added to the bitterness between both sets of supporters, while highlighting the growing hatred that was already there.
With Manchester City dominating the Premier League like never before and Liverpool reaching the final stages of European football’s pinnacle competition, the historic rivals shared by both clubs – Manchester United – suddenly didn’t seem so intimidating or relevant any more. The feeling has only exacerbated in the months since after a poor start to the new season that has mounted pressure on Jose Mourinho, one of the fundamental issues being their tepid style of play in comparison to City and Liverpool.
But everybody needs an enemy, so with United out of the picture and their fates so closely intertwining in recent years, Liverpool and Manchester City have naturally emerged as each others’ competitors.
A few years previous, Klopp took a thinly-veiled swipe at Manchester City and Manchester United’s spending, claiming he would quit the game if he ever began signing off transfer fees as large as theirs.
That no doubt irked City fans at the time, but two summers on Klopp was joining the spending spree. Following a world-record deal for Virgil van Dijk in January, Liverpool broke another record for goalkeeper Alisson, eclipsing the sum City had set on Ederson the year previous, while Fabinho and Naby Keita were brought in on big money too.
It gave City fans the chance to cry hypocrisy, but it also provided the injection of quality Liverpool needed to move them to the same level as their new-found rivals.
So here we are, the point at which the rivalry now stands. Liverpool and Manchester City are both yet to feel defeat in the Premier League this season, both have taken exactly 19 points from their first seven games and both have conceded just three goals.
The two clubs have rarely been closer in terms of talent, depth and sheer entertainment, but what will the next episode of English football’s key rivalry have in store when they take the field on Sunday? We’ll have to wait and see.