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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Liverpool v Man City: A season, a title race and a legacy come down to these 90 minutes

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Football

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Jurgen Klopp is insisting on ultra focus from his squad, but those around him are inevitably wondering whether the Liverpool manager is considering the greater scale of everything right now. It will become apparent in the little details. These few days, for example, might be the last time the German figures out how to restrict space around Kevin De Bruyne. It might even be the last time he faces Pep Guardiola.

Yes, Sunday’s battle for first place is also the start of the series of “finals”. It is perhaps fitting that it is Liverpool-Manchester City that initially gets everyone thinking like this, because you could forgive Klopp wanting to consign this fixture to the past as quickly as possible.

It is the pairing that has most defined his time in England, and most frustrated him. Put bluntly, Klopp’s legacy would be infinitely greater if it wasn’t for this iteration of City. Guardiola’s side have directly denied him at least two league titles, and all of this as the uncertainty of the 115 charges for alleged rule breaches hangs over the entire English game.

It’s not just that he might have won another two league titles, either. Klopp is the only other manager in “the Guardiola era” to get more than 90 points, and he did it three times. This is historic performance. It might even have been the Klopp era, had that same history taken a different course. The future may well change perceptions on that, depending on the outcome of the City case.

For now, Klopp could be perceived as one of the unluckiest managers in the game, the greatest victims of financial disparity even as he presides over one of the sport’s superpowers.

He was at Borussia Dortmund just at the point that football’s new global dimension made Bayern Munich virtually uncatchable due to greater commercial income. He then went to Liverpool just when geopolitical influence ensured City evolved into perhaps the perfect club in terms of winning capability.

Trent Alexander-Arnold touched on the latter in pre-game comments that have already stoked much of this.

“It’s tough. We’re up against a machine that’s built to win – that’s the simplest way to describe City and their organisation. Looking back on this era, although they’ve won more titles than us and have probably been more successful, our trophies will mean more to us and our fanbase because of the situations at both clubs, financially. How both clubs have built their teams and the manner in which we’ve done it, probably means more to our fans.”

City players such as Erling Haaland and Ruben Dias have already offered responses, and it is known to have infuriated some of their dressing room. There’s the same feeling of “showing you on the pitch” that came with the response to the 115 alleged breaches at this exact time last year.

Trent Alexander-Arnold and Erling Haaland have been mixing words before the game

(Getty Images)

In talking about “meaning more”, though, Alexander-Arnold was only following his manager’s lead. That sentiment from Liverpool may have come to aggravate fans of other clubs, but Klopp has sought to actively use it; to fire a spirit from a special history.

It is why he doesn’t look at any of this era with frustration or resentment. He looks at it with defiance.

Klopp embraces the romance of it, as well as the idea of putting it up to greater forces. That might sound a bit much given Liverpool were Super League plotters owned by venture capitalists and sponsored by Standard Chartered. These are also the relativities of modern football.

Either way, it has become the grand narrative shaping Klopp’s final act. He doesn’t just have the opportunity to win the league again, and one that Liverpool can finally celebrate properly. He has the chance to rectify some of this era and the rivalry with City. If the lament of Klopp’s Premier League legacy is that he could have had more league titles, it would look a lot better if that was two rather than one. It would feel a lot better if it means he stops City becoming the first English club to win four league titles in a row, while also making it six in seven.

That would elevate Klopp’s legacy as the great counterbalance to one of the most dominant projects the game has seen; the anti-Guardiola.

Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola

(Getty Images)

It all accentuates the importance of this meeting at Anfield, which has actually been amplified by the challenge of Arsenal.

In usual seasons, the effects of any single game are never as consequential as made out. That’s because the result can be made up in the rest of the fixtures. There are too many other turns. Their greatest importance is instead in terms of momentum and psychology.

Such benefits are instead only part of it here. This game really can be decisive. There was already the precedent in 2018-19, when the title genuinely did come down to inches. John Stones’ exacting clearance off the line ensured City beat Liverpool 2-1 on their big meeting and, ultimately, by a mere point in the title race.

This season could be similar, given how results have been going. It is also why there is more intrigue about Liverpool than City.

We know what the champions are all about. We know they can easily get over 90 points at will, given this team have done it so often. They are already building form ominously, in the same way they did on the way to treble from this period last season.

That is the standard Liverpool have to reach. We just have no idea if they can sustain it. There is an exhilarating uncertainty about it all. This is a new team, enjoying their first full season together.

Major changes were made to the Liverpool squad in summer

(Getty Images)

You would normally say it’s far too big an ask for them to do it in this campaign, but Klopp has previous. No one expected his first great side to go anywhere near 97 points in that 2018-19 season.

It’s just another reason this match could be so exacting. A bit more of the reality of this Liverpool will be revealed. We can already see they’re a fundamentally very good and hugely promising team. They’ve already passed numerous tests in keeping this run going, not least in last week’s potentially crucial 99th-minute win over Nottingham Forest.

There is still a vital difference between steadily building to bring yourself to the line and then getting over it. The test here couldn’t be greater. Liverpool have to show they can match the English and European champions in a game when the pressure is on.

This is why Klopp played such an inexperienced team in the League Cup final. It was precisely for this, a final league challenge against Guardiola.

They might meet again in the FA Cup, of course, but it won’t have the same significance. It’s all about the league now for Klopp, and everything that would represent.

This match is at the centre, a first of many final steps.

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