The champions Man City host the leaders Liverpool FC at the Etihad on Thursday, the latest installment in a series that is evoking memories of the Ferguson-Wenger era
Pep Guardiola was midway through his answer, but his audience’s attention had already been drawn elsewhere.
It was late-July, and the Manchester City manager was conducting a press conference at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
He had just watched his team, made up mainly of teenagers with a sprinkling of senior players thrown in, beaten 2-1 by Liverpool on a dog of a pitch in the International Champions Cup, courtesy of Sadio Mane’s last-minute penalty.
Guardiola was praising the performance of his side, the maturity of his youngsters and the way in which they had sought to control the game against more experienced opposition.
Then, Klopp arrived.
The Reds boss hadn’t meant to gatecrash, but his presence was enough to change the mood in the room. There were cheers and applause, with Guardiola inviting his opposite number to join him at the top table.
Those hoping for an impromptu joint press conference were to be left disappointed. The pair shook hands, but as Klopp took his seat, Guardiola exited stage left. The limelight would not be shared.
Fast forward five months or so, and Klopp is again invading Guardiola’s personal space. Liverpool have their eye on City’s Premier League crown, and can take a giant stride towards it with victory at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday evening.
No team has ever failed to win the title having gone into the New Year with a seven-point advantage, as Liverpool did this week. City, though, will cut that gap to four if they can become the first side to defeat Klopp’s men in the league this season.
It’s set up for a classic, a clash of two top-quality teams, full of top-quality players, with top-quality managers who demand top-quality football.
“The most attractive game of the Premier League,” says Ilkay Gundogan, the City midfielder. Hard to argue. The sub-plots are everywhere.
The game will see Brazil’s first and second-choice goalkeepers battle, it will see two of Europe’s most potent attacks go head-to-head. Arguably the Premier League’s two finest centre-backs will be on display, as well as its best left-back, its most creative midfielder and its two best right-backs.
Then, there are the managers. Klopp and Guardiola maintain, regardless of that sketch in America in the summer, a healthy respect for one another, but their rivalry is emerging as one of the most compelling English football has seen in years.
In the late-1990s, the nation was entranced by Manchester United and Arsenal, with the teams of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger producing a series of memorable clashes. They were often fraught, and often decisive when it came to the destination of the championship.
Since then, there have been brief conflicts but few genuine, lasting rivalries. Early days, but City and Liverpool look capable of providing exactly that, even if the enmity that existed between United and Arsenal at their peak is still to emerge.
Hopefully it doesn’t. In an era where ‘bad blood’ or ‘needle’ are seen as necessities in sports promotion – we’re looking at you, Mr McGregor – the approach of both Klopp and Guardiola is refreshing. Theirs is a footballing dispute, nothing more. The quality of the two teams is enough to sell it.
“For me, they are still the best team in the world,” Klopp said at his pre-match press conference on Wednesday. Two days earlier, Guardiola had ventured a similar opinion of Liverpool. “At the moment,” he said, “they are the best team in Europe.”
Klopp’s record against Guardiola ensures he commands the Catalan’s respect. In 15 meetings, the German’s sides have prevailed eight times. At Liverpool, he has lost to City just once – a 5-0 shelling at the Etihad last season, when Mane was sent off in the first half.
It means Guardiola has often tailored his approach, abandoning (or at least modifying) some of his core principles in order to win the tactical battle.
At Bayern Munich, for example, he used long balls to beat the famous Borussia Dortmund press, deploying Javi Martinez as an attacking midfielder in order to play direct and fight in the opposition half. At Anfield in October, he dropped his team deep, using Bernardo Silva as an orthodox central midfielder as he sought to nullify Liverpool’s rapier-like counter-attacks.
It worked, to a degree. City would have won that game but for Riyad Mahrez’s late penalty miss. The Algerian’s aberration has looked more costly with each passing week.
Guardiola has suggested that even a draw may not be enough for his side on Thursday. “We drop points, it’s over,” he said last weekend.
He has never been beaten to a league title by Klopp, but Liverpool’s consistent excellence over the first half of the season means it is a real possibility this time. “They don’t lose a game, they don’t concede, they start in incredible form,” the Catalan added.
Klopp, meanwhile, knows both the challenge which lies ahead, and the rewards should his side win.