The Premier League’s biggest rivalry resumes this weekend.
Liverpool travel to Manchester City looking to underline their status as English football’s top dogs. Champions last season, and the early pace-setters this time around, Jurgen Klopp’s men know they can land a significant blow with victory at the Etihad on Sunday.
For Pep Guardiola, the stakes are even higher. This is the game City have been waiting for, the chance to prove that they, not Liverpool, are the team to fear. Dethroned in comprehensive fashion last term, Guardiola’s side will be desperate to get their revenge this time around.
Expect drama and tension, quality and intensity. Expect needle and controversy and, at times, animosity.
Expect, above everything else, an excellent game of football.
“I couldn’t have more respect for Manchester City,” insisted Klopp back in June. Guardiola says Liverpool are the toughest opponent he has ever faced as a manager.
The respect between the two managers is real, even if it has been tested in recent years as the two clubs have jostled for supremacy at home and abroad.
If Manchester City v Liverpool is a new rivalry, it is certainly a strong one. This is the story of its rise, told by those who have been there to witness it first-hand...
In 24 hours, everything changed at Manchester City.
They had started the 2008-09 season under the ownership of UK Sports Investments Limited, a company controlled by former Thailand prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but on the morning of Monday, September 1, 2008, it was announced that the Abu Dhabi United Group had completed a £200 million ($262m) takeover of the club.
Hours later, and minutes before the summer transfer window closed, City completed the club-record signing of Brazilian star Robinho from Real Madrid. A new era had arrived.
City had finished ninth the previous season, while Jamie Carragher’s Liverpool were gearing up for a title challenge under Rafa Benitez. The two clubs, though, were soon heading in opposite directions...
Carragher: “We’d seen it happen before with Chelsea, but this was different to begin with. Chelsea were already an established top-four club, so when [Roman] Abramovich took over, they were in a strong position.
“The jump for City was a lot bigger. They were a mid-table club. So, to start with, you weren’t thinking about them as being title challengers.”
City finished 10th in 2008-09, while Liverpool were second, missing out on the title narrowly to Manchester United. But with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure signed, the Manchester club were soon moving up the table.
Carragher: “They began to attract good players, Premier League players to begin with. It felt like they almost used them, and [then-manager] Mark Hughes, to get to a certain level, and then they could go again.
“I was 30-odd then, and thinking of my own situation. We were dropping away from being title challengers. We were thinking more about the top four. United and Chelsea were pretty much established at the top, so when City started to get stronger, it was us and Arsenal who were vulnerable.
City were fifth in 2009-10, third the following season and, finally, became champions in dramatic fashion on the final day of the 2011-12 campaign.
Liverpool, meanwhile, were in turmoil, enduring the demise of both Benitez and Roy Hodgson, as well as hated owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks, who eventually surrendered control of the club to current owners Fenway Sports Group after a bitter High Court battle in October 2010.
The Reds did win a trophy, lifting the League Cup under Kenny Dalglish in 2012. They beat City over two legs in the semi-final, but it was clear that the two clubs were no longer operating on a level playing-field.
Carragher: “It was a mix of them getting stronger and us getting weaker. It felt like we were getting left behind as a club. These clubs were buying top players, while we were struggling to keep hold of ours.
“It was a realisation that the most we could hope for was getting into the top four and maybe sneaking a League Cup or something.
“In some ways, I’m quite proud of games like that League Cup semi, because we were nowhere near as good as they were, but we were able to compete with them.
“I think there should be a grudging admiration for Liverpool from City, about the games we had during those times. They were steamrolling everyone but they didn’t do it to us. Even though they had all those great sides, they still haven’t won at Anfield for 17 years. And that’s what creates the rivalry.”
The First Challenge
In 2012, Liverpool replaced Dalglish with Brendan Rodgers and, by the spring of 2014, the Reds, improbably, were challenging for the Premier League title.
Inspired by the form of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, Rodgers’ side embarked on a remarkable nine-game winning run, and knew that a 10th victory would put them in control of the title race.
Manuel Pellegrini’s City, their closest challengers, were the visitors to Anfield on an emotional April afternoon.
Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet: “I remember being on the bus travelling to the game and the fans were in the streets waiting to greet us. It was the first time I had ever had this in my career, and something you never forget. They were everywhere, it was incredible.”
Reds coach John Achterberg: “It was mad, the passion and the aggression of the supporters. You could see it on their faces. You felt goosebumps everywhere. We were on a good run anyway but this gave us extra energy. The lead up to that game was magic, unbelievable.”
Liverpool won 3-2, Philippe Coutinho scoring a late winner after City had fought back from 2-0 down. After the game, Reds captain Steven Gerrard gathered his team-mates for an on-pitch huddle, insisting that “this does not f***ing slip”. His side were top of the table with four games to play.
Achterberg: “I really thought we were going to do it after that. We were on a roll and playing with so much confidence.”
Mignolet: “It was one of the best atmospheres I ever encountered in football. At the end we were all in the huddle and Steven was speaking with such passion and emotion. It was goosebumps. We felt we were in a position to go on and win the league after that game, but it wasn’t to be.”
Gerrard’s words, of course, would come back to haunt him. A fortnight after that City game, he himself slipped, Liverpool lost at home to Chelsea to surrender control of the league. City would take full advantage of his misfortune, clinching their second title on the final day.
Within 18 months, everything had changed. Suarez left, Gerrard departed and, in October 2015, Rodgers was sacked, replaced as Reds boss by a certain Jurgen Klopp.
Rising From The Ashes
By the end of the 2015-16 season, Liverpool were eighth in the Premier League, below West Ham and Southampton, among others.
But with Klopp in place, optimism was high at Anfield. The Reds had shown promise in the German’s first seven months in charge, with the first sign of what they might be able to achieve coming in a 4-1 win over City at the Etihad in November 2015.
Achterberg: “Jurgen had just come in, so the tactics were not in place completely at that point. We played more compact that day, we said we would set-up from the halfway line, organise behind the ball and then attack them when they came onto us. We were on fire that day, with Bobby Firmino playing as No.9. Every time we won the ball, we broke like mad.”
The sides would meet in the League Cup final a few months later, with City triumphing on penalties at Wembley.
Mignolet: “I think City had the edge on us in terms of experience. They had players like (Vincent) Kompany, (Yaya) Toure, (Sergio) Aguero, (David) Silva, who were used to winning. We were still a developing team, a young team that was learning under a new manager. We always had talent, and we could match them on any given day, but when the big moments came, they always had that experience. We were always the underdogs.”
Achterberg: “I still think we could have won that game. Whenever we played them, I always thought we were the better team. We played them three days after that final and won 3-0 at Anfield, for example. They were always expected to win things, and we were still the young, up and coming team. We were developing under the boss, but we made big strides every year.
"I always remember at the end of that season, after we’d lost the Europa League final, Jurgen said we needed to learn to lose those finals in order to win.”
The Power Of Anfield
By 2018, City were flying. Guardiola had replaced Pellegrini in 2016, and in his second season his side would embark on an historic 100-point Premier League campaign.
Liverpool, though, were stirring too. The Reds were the first team to defeat City in the league that season, an epic 4-3 victory at Anfield, and a couple of months later the sides would meet in the quarter-finals of the Champions League...
Mignolet: “The build-up to that game was something special. It would be big anyway, of course, but it felt like everyone was talking about it. Every time you switched the TV on or read the newspaper, it was Liverpool v City.”
The first leg was at Anfield, and played amid a frenzied atmosphere.
Conor Masterson was a 19-year-old substitute for the Reds, and remembers it as the best night of his young career...
Masterson: “I didn’t know I was in the squad until the morning of the game. We were warming up at Melwood, doing rondos. We knew the starting XI, but not the subs. Klopp came up to me and just said, ‘How do you feel?’ He said ‘You’re going to be involved tonight, you’re going to be on the bench, get yourself ready.' I was like ‘Oh my god!’, it was crazy, one of the best moments of my life.
“What I remember most is being on the bus and coming past the Arkles pub. I’ll never, ever forget that. It was just red everywhere, flares, scarves, flags. All you could hear was ‘Allez, Allez, Allez’, it was mental. I sat next to Trent, and we were both just like ‘oh my days!’
“All the players, all the coaches had their phones out videoing. Even the most experienced ones. We couldn’t believe it. It was like we were going into the Colosseum or something!”
On the pitch, Liverpool steamed into City. Mo Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sadio Mane scored in the first half to give Klopp’s team a 3-0 advantage to take into the second leg.
Achterberg: “We lost 5-0 at the Etihad earlier in the season, but for the first 20 minutes or so we were on top. We conceded a goal and then Sadio was sent off before half-time. Then we’d beaten them at Anfield in the January, so we already had confidence we could compete with City.”
Masterson: “Klopp didn’t need to motivate anyone that night, but I always remember him saying ‘if we stick to the gameplan, we will have a successful night’. Those words stick with me. Milner was loud that night, Henderson and Van Dijk too. We were up for it.”
Carragher: “City were streets ahead of everyone in the league, but they come to Anfield and they couldn’t handle it. I think it’s something special about Liverpool. It’s that mentality; a team may be better but they aren’t having it easy here, no f***ing way. It can be a nightmare, even for the best teams.”
Masterson: “I remember warming up, maybe 40 minutes before the game, and Anfield was full. I’d never seen that before. It was like everyone was waiting for this game.”
Mignolet: “We knew after the league game at Anfield that we could cause them problems. Mo and Sadio were on fire, and we knew we would have an amazing atmosphere for the first leg. That first half was amazing.”
Masterson: “That was the best night of my life, because of what it meant for the fans. I still have everything from the night; videos, pictures. I still have my shirt. I didn’t get on, but I was never giving that up.”
The second leg at the Etihad was equally memorable. City threatened to overturn the deficit as they dominated the first half, but goals from Salah and Firmino after the break secured a 5-1 aggregate win for the Reds, with Guardiola sent to the stands for arguing with the match officials.
Mignolet: “That first half was one of the tensest and most intense I’ve ever seen. It felt like they were coming at us for the whole 45 minutes and we needed a bit of luck. But Mo scored after half-time and everything changed. When you look back, to beat that City side 5-1 over two legs, it was an incredible achievement.”
Carragher: “I think that gave Liverpool huge confidence. City were so far ahead, so to beat them so comprehensively, it was almost like ‘Well, why can’t we win the league now?’”
The following season, City and Liverpool went head-to-head in one of the tightest and most memorable title races of all-time.
Liverpool lost only one game, beaten 2-1 at the Etihad, and racked up 97 points, but fell short. City won their last 14 league games on the spin to clinch the title by a point.
The following season, though, it would be Liverpool’s Premier League, Klopp’s side winning 32 of their 38 league games to win the title by 18 points, securing the trophy with seven games to spare.
City won 4-0 when the teams last met at the Etihad in July, but had been forced to give their rivals a guard of honour after their defeat at Chelsea a week earlier had handed the Reds their first title in 30 years, sparking wild celebrations on Merseyside.
Mignolet: “I knew when I left Liverpool [in 2019] that they could go again. I felt they were a more complete team, because they had all the attacking power but they also had the defensive strength. I wasn’t surprised that they went and did what they did last season, I was probably only surprised that City were so far behind and that they didn’t get closer.”
Carragher: “You have to credit City. They’ve set the bar so high and challenged everyone to come and match it. That’s what champions do, and that’s what Liverpool have done.”
Mignolet: “The two teams need each other, for sure. You need your rivals to be strong, because it means you have to be strong also. It means you never relax, not even for one training session. Because if you do, that could be the difference.
"If you want to win the Premier League now, you have to be better and better, 90 points, 95 points. Liverpool have been able to do that, but they needed that target, that motivation. They needed someone to aim for.”
A Healthy Respect
And so now, the latest instalment arrives. Liverpool can go eight points clear with a win, while City can move within striking distance with a victory of their own.
It promises to be a lively one, even if the two men in the dugouts tend to ensure the rivalry remains strictly a footballing one.
Carragher: “There’s a healthy respect there, for sure. Pep has huge respect for Klopp and Liverpool, and if you ever ask Klopp who the best manager in the world is, he always says Guardiola, doesn’t he? I couldn’t imagine Alex Ferguson ever saying Arsene Wenger was the best manager or Arsenal were the best team, could you?! The rivalry is intense, but rarely personal.”
Mignolet: “It stepped up when Guardiola came, but everyone at Liverpool, including Jurgen, has nothing but respect for what Pep has achieved in his career, and for the players that he has at City. You know if you want to beat a Pep team, you have to be at your best, always concentrated, always at 100 per cent intensity.”
Achterberg: “To be honest, that’s how you have to be: humble. We try to do the best for Liverpool, he [Guardiola] tries to do the best for City. There’s nothing but respect there.”
Carragher: “I think at times the media try to hype up the rivalry, but there haven’t been too many ‘mind games’ I can think of – there was the bit over Mane diving last season and I think Klopp had a little dig about tactical fouls.
“I know some people at City think Liverpool get favourable coverage in the media, but the fact is, and it’ll never go away; Manchester City have got to accept that they will never be as big as Liverpool and Manchester United. They just won’t.
“I can tell you viewing figures, anyone in the media will tell you that a column on City isn’t as widely read as one on Liverpool or United. Does that mean those clubs get more coverage? Yes, because it sells more. City have to get over that fact, because it’ll never change.”
Achterberg: “I enjoy these games, even if they come with extra pressure. When we won the league, I spoke to Milly. I told him ‘Now we have to make sure there is no f*cking holiday.' We knew we couldn’t give anyone a head start. We have to be on it from the first minute. That’s the way it is, and the way it should be.”