Michael Walker: Man City and Liverpool now on another level

Could we be on verge of City-Liverpool era as there was once with Man United and Arsenal?

Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola respect each other despite a deepening rivalry. Photograph: Reuters

Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola respect each other despite a deepening rivalry. Photograph: Reuters

 

Ullet Road, south Liverpool, Wednesday morning: a grey sky, a red glow and a blue plaque.

The night before at Anfield, Liverpool did what they did to Barcelona in the Champions League. The night before that, Vincent Kompany did what he did to the title race in the Premier League. They made the net bulge and the heart pound.

Here, at No 28, a former resident understood this drama. An English Heritage blue plaque on the wall informs that John Brodie once lived here. Brodie was Liverpool’s City Engineer, who helped design and construct the Mersey Tunnel. What the plaque does not say is that Brodie also imagined, invented and patented the goal net.

In professional football’s embryonic days of the 1880s, Brodie saw something unsatisfactory in bare goalposts and the lack of certainty they provided. In 1891 his goalmouth technology changed all that.

On Monday night it was possible to think of Brodie afresh. There was something exquisite about the strike, the arc and the accuracy of Kompany’s thrilling late winner against Leicester. There was also the way the net clung to the ball on impact. It was an embrace.

The goal may not have possessed the last-second theatre of Sergio Agüero’s at the same end seven years earlier, but Kompany’s was aesthetically pure. Like Agüero’s, it may be one that gets Manchester City across the goal line in a title race.

Historic comeback

Then, 24 hours on, Xherdan Shaqiri supplied a cross to Georginio Wijnaldum as Anfield began to consider an historic comeback victory against Barcelona was actually achievable. It was 2-3 on aggregate and Wijnaldum made it 3-3 with a header of precise perfection that hit the net with pace.

As with Kompany’s shot, there was something aesthetic about Wijnaldum’s header. Its accuracy made it unstoppable and the high visibility of the white netting, contrasting with the dark Kop, added to the spectacle.

Those nets were once red. Anfield mythology has it that Bill Shankly ordered it so, maybe to aid the impression of the Kop sucking the ball in. Roy Evans then changed them to white, Brendan Rodgers brought back red.

Jürgen Klopp has turned them white again. On Tuesday night you could literally see why.

Two seasons ago, Liverpool began their Premier League campaign with three away games due to construction work at Anfield. Before their first home match at the reconfigured stadium, Klopp held a training session there and afterwards he and his backroom staff requested the nets go from red to white to help players’ peripheral vision. Two days later Liverpool scored four.

Even those weary of the mantra of marginal gains can recognise such incremental improvements.

Along with something like Tuesday’s instruction to Anfield’s ballboys to get the ball back quicker to Liverpool’s players, these details enhance quality and from there promote belief. Hence a 14-year-old ballboy from Leeds, who plays for one of Liverpool’s youth teams, zipped the ball to Trent Alexander-Arnold to cross for Divock Origi’s astonishing winner.

It is said Klopp had noticed in the first leg that Barcelona’s players contested every decision and were sometimes caught up in their protest. It looked that way as Barça stopped and Origi swooped.

Dejan Lovren said Klopp had given an “amazing speech” pre-match focusing on self-belief. Klopp’s programme notes had been similar, ending with: “There is no need for any rallying calls tonight. Our players and our supporters reflect each other.

“They are determined, stubborn and never give up. They believe in themselves and the effect they can have.

“So Anfield will be Anfield tonight and we play a European semi-final – this is cool. As always our club focuses on the opportunity, what can be achieved, and we attack it together. You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Klopp’s belief fuelled his players’ belief and from them, Anfield believed. It was a virtuous circle and it meant that in the space of 24 hours Manchester City and Liverpool had delivered unforgettable goalmouth moments. It means both clubs surf into tomorrow’s Premier League final afternoon on waves of euphoria.

Expectation

Origi’s goal was the 111th time Liverpool have hit the back of the net this season. Kompany’s goal was City’s 159th. Last season City got 143 and Liverpool 135. That’s 548 goals from the two clubs in two seasons. And it isn’t over yet.

Tomorrow, City travel to wary Brighton where the expectation is they will rattle in a few more goals and thereby clinch a second consecutive league title. Liverpool will host Wolves hoping for a win and a Brighton miracle. However slim, there is still a chance of a first Liverpool league championship since 1990.

The following Saturday City take on Watford in the FA Cup final and two Saturdays after that, post-Barcelona, Liverpool meet Tottenham in the Champions League final.

There is more likelihood of a domestic City treble – Pep Guardiola’s team have already won the League Cup – than a Liverpool double. But that we are in May and both are possible is the only proof required that these two clubs have lifted themselves to another level in England and that we could be on the verge of a City-Liverpool era as there was once with Manchester United and Arsenal.

“It’s just the start,” Virgil van Dijk said on Tuesday after the Barcelona 4-0, “it’s not like next year we’re not going to try to do it again.

“It’s something we have to build on. There’s still a game to play for them and us on Sunday and we’ll see.”

Liverpool finished fourth last season, 25 points behind City. Klopp had a good team then, now they are very good and getting better. Van Dijk and goalkeeper Allison have made an enormous difference. Liverpool conceded 38 last season in the league, a goal a game. This season it’s 22. “He’s just like a wall in front of the goal,” Allison said of van Dijk.

Asked if the two clubs could dominate over the next few years, a very modern kind of old firm, van Dijk was cautious: “I don’t know . . . but hopefully ourselves are going to be keep challenging for the title. We’ve had a fantastic season, both of us. Man City has been outstanding as well. To compete with them says a lot about how we’re progressing from last year.”

He was speaking before Tottenham did what they did to Ajax and, if they are not hamstrung by debt and mortgage payments on the new stadium, Spurs have the potential to challenge. But with Manchester United and Arsenal in desperate need of direction and Chelsea facing a two-window transfer ban and Roman Abramovich out of the country, there is a scenario where City and Liverpool pull clear.

Angst

Others view that prospect with some angst. As Rafa Benitez said last Saturday after Newcastle lost 3-2 to Liverpool: “It’s good and it’s bad at the same time. It’s good because you have teams who are capable of winning many games in a row, but it’s bad because it’s a big difference with the other teams.”

City, top, are 80 points ahead of Huddersfield, bottom.

A couple of miles north of Brodie’s plaque, a lone Chinese tourist Liverpool fan was taking a photo of the mural off Jamaica Street of Klopp patting the club crest above his heart, as he does.

Someone had scrawled black paint over the white words: “We Are Liverpool. This Means More.”

And perhaps it does mean more than a marketing slogan, given the 29-year wait for the title.

Gary James, author of Manchester: A Football History and numerous City books, recalls those last minutes in 2012 when City where losing 2-1 at home to 10-man QPR and United were winning 1-0 at Sunderland courtesy of Wayne Rooney.

James says his 15-year-old daughter remained positive as the 90th minute approached despite the fact City needed not one, but two goals to win a first title for 44 years. James had imbibed too much “Cityitis” over those decades to agree. He had seen City in the third division, been there on the last day in 1996 when – against Liverpool – Alan Ball miscalculated the relegation scenario and City went down.

So even when Edin Dzeko equalised against QPR to make it 2-2, James and generations of City fans could not believe. They could see substitute Mario Balotelli on the ball and, as James says: “All of us older fans just thought: ‘No’.

“But on this day, Balotelli saw Aguero. The rest is history.”

It was twenty seconds into the fourth minute of injury-time and United were, as it stood, champions. Then Aguero struck. City’s wait was over and for James’s generation, it definitely meant more. There is a “93:20” bar at the Etihad Stadium.

Four years on from the transformational surge of Abu Dhabi petro-dollars into a club which, on leaving Maine Road in 2003 had sold the manager’s office door for £70, and even after Robinho, Carlos Tevez and all the rest, City supporters could not quite believe. Memories of last-day trauma still trumped any hopes of last-day exhilaration.

‘Financial doping’

But seven years on, City fans can believe and they do.

In David Conn’s Manchester City book, Richer Than God, Conn observes a former Maine Road-era City director Ian Niven, take in the new stadium and the abundant wealth on and off the pitch. “Well,” Niven says, “it isn’t the City I know and love, but if all this were going to happen to anybody, I’m glad it’s happened to us”.

Globalisation happened. The reservations about the amount of money Abu Dhabi have injected into City – “financial doping” as Arsene Wenger called it back in 2009 – mean many neutrals will feel cold should City stroll past Brighton.

Concerns remain about the regime itself. Why are they in east Manchester? Soft power? Hard power? It’s not Paul Power.

Yet while it is rational to argue that oil money guarantees City, before Guardiola arrived they had just finished fourth on 66 points and had again failed narrowly in the Champions League – losing 1-0 to Real Madrid in the semi-final. Wealth had not made success inevitable, something they have discovered to their cost at Old Trafford.

Guardiola and exceptional recruitment have been the change. Guardiola realised for example that his goalkeeper, Claudio Bravo, had to go.

The same can be said of Klopp at Anfield, broadly and in terms of Loris Karius.

The managers are two factors in a developing rivalry. As James says, Klopp and Guardiola are respectful towards each other, but there is increasing bitterness between the fanbases. The raucous reception accorded City’s team bus at Anfield for the Champions League quarter-final last April sharpened opinions, as did the two matches.

This season, Liverpool’s only defeat in the league has come at City – in January; there was the recent Youth Cup final won by the Reds at City; on the last day they are head-to-head needing victories to claim the Premier League. This rivalry is here and now.

It is probable that City will end the season with 98 points and Liverpool with 97. Then City will begin to think about the FA Cup final and Liverpool about the Champions League final. At one level they are already: Liverpool have had to organise routes for potentially two celebratory bus tours.

It is planning for the future rather than arrogance – and what is striking about both clubs, in comparison to others, is that they have a plan. Next season Liverpool will wear a kit honouring Bob Paisley’s centenary.

City think ahead too, which is how they recruited Guardiola. It could be seen at a corner off Thomas Street in central Manchester on Wednesday afternoon where they were putting the finishing touches to their own mural – for the FA Cup final.

Before then City are at Brighton. There they are likely to have the last word of this league season. It is easy to see it coming from Aguero and via the most satisfying sound in football: a ball rushing into the back of the net.

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