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Saturday, April 13, 2024

An era ends for Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola – but now they enter something new in the title race

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As a beaming Jurgen Klopp sat down with the press after a 1-1 that got everyone off their seats, he was asked whether this made him want to stay. The Liverpool manager reasserted his reason for leaving at the end of the season, but there is maybe some slight sense of regret – if also completeness – that his team produced what he described as one of their best performances against Manchester City in his last league game against them. Klopp can be given to hyperbole in such situations, but there was logic to his claim. It was also for more reasons than the context of the performance and, as the German said, “the squad situation”.

It was also about the approach and resolve. In Klopp’s previous landmark performances against City, particularly in 2017-18, there was an element of Liverpool exploiting the rare gaps left by Pep Guardiola’s side. Those performances had the sense of being fully commanding, but they weren’t quite that. As Klopp said himself, they usually won through counter-attacks.

This was different. It was one of Liverpool’s more complete displays against this City side in how they dominated the ball and space. The spell after half-time was remarkable, with Guardiola’s side unusually spooked. It was a rare game where it felt like the champions got away with one, even though they themselves went so close with Jeremy Doku’s shot off the post.

That might normally foster the sense that Liverpool will rue this draw, but there was no sense of that after the game.

“How we played in midfield was some of the best moments of my coaching career,” Klopp said. “That we are able to do that against them… the boys really wanted it, massive heart, sensational atmosphere, one point, let’s keep going”.

The big question, of course, is how far they can go. Is it just a title challenge, or are we really talking about Liverpool becoming champions again in Klopp’s final season? The German, perhaps predictably, sidestepped that question. “All that matters is where we are from a performance point of view – and today we saw that.”

This is actually the real significance of a fixture that had been built up as another seismic Liverpool-City game but ended somewhat unsatisfactorily. There was no climax. Rather than settling anything, though, it set a pace.

After months where Liverpool looked so promising but questions persisted over how good they actually were, we now have a definitive answer. They were able to come back against City and dominate the game with many senior players missing. That is a big step.

They have become the team to beat… except for the fact that Arsenal are still ahead of them. And, once this duel between two great rivals was out of the way, thoughts properly turned to the fact that this really looks like the Premier League’s first proper three-way race in a decade. Both managers were asked about the prospect, with neither having experienced it before.

Klopp and Guardiola hug on the touchline at Anfield

(Getty)

It is something new even for them. That creates even more excitement from a sense of uncertainty. They won’t just be looking to each other. Guardiola initially had a curious response when asked whether that posed a different challenge.

“You are not going to undermine our previous Premier Leagues,” he said, before again mentioning “credit”.

That whole debate is something that seems to have increasingly agitated the Catalan of late, and it’s hard not to wonder whether it’s linked to all the praise for the departing Klopp. The German himself simply ruminated on whether he’d ever been involved in a three-way race and concluded he had not.

Where both managers were relaying exactly the same message, though, was in effusive praise of the other challenger. Both were glowing about Arsenal.

Guardiola enthused about how Mikel Arteta’s side “need 25 minutes to go 3-0 up”, in reference to the way they’ve just blown sides away of late. Klopp picked up that theme, talking about how Arsenal are ‘firing on all cylinders”.

He then added “City is City”, which is a simple three words but is maybe the most relevant point in all of this.

Klopp: ‘How we played in midfield was some of the best moments of my coaching career’

(Getty)

What he meant is that it’s known Guardiola’s side can get over 85 points at will – usually more – so this is the standard the other two have to reach. That’s the decisive factor in the entire race. That is also why Klopp took such satisfaction from this result, but particularly the performance. It was an assertion of quality. Arsenal are meanwhile indicating they can accelerate from last season; that they have genuinely gone to another level.

Whether it’s enough remains to be seen, but it’s all certainly sufficient for another staple of proper title races. Klopp asked the media after this 1-1 how many matches are left. There are 10.

That is generally the point where the title race becomes the title run-in, and everyone starts looking to the remaining fixtures to figure out where points might be dropped.

It is often a futile exercise but it adds to the entertainment of it all. Certain fixtures are marked. One now looms above the rest. It is one where it will be Klopp sitting back, to watch City and Arsenal go at it on Easter Sunday.

We’ll get closer to the full picture, and closer to the title itself.

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