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Liverpool v Manchester City

How long can Klopp vs Guardiola remain a friendly rivalry?

1:00 PM GMT+4 10/11/2019
Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola
The Liverpool and Manchester City managers have maintained a respectful relationship as the title rivals prepare to go head-to-head at Anfield

The noise grew quickly. A low hum which got louder and louder. 

Cheers and whistles, a ripple of applause. Enough to grab the attention away from the man at the front of the room.

Pep Guardiola was holding a post-match press conference at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, but nobody was listening now. 

Without realising it, Jurgen Klopp had stolen his limelight.

Klopp’s unscheduled appearance outside the media room caused such a commotion that, when the door opened, Guardiola invited the Liverpool boss on stage alongside him. The pair embraced warmly but, as Klopp sat down, Guardiola made straight for the exit.

“Oh…bye!” grinned a bemused, perhaps slightly embarrassed, Klopp.

That was in the summer of 2018, following a low-key pre-season friendly, which Liverpool won. Fast forward 16 months and Klopp is hoping to steal Guardiola’s stage once more, this time with the stakes much, much higher.

And with the rivalry between the two clubs – and the two managers – having grown and grown and grown in the meantime.

Manchester City arrive at Anfield on Sunday knowing that defeat would loosen their two-year grip on the Premier League. Victory for Liverpool would take Klopp’s team nine points clear at the top of the table, an unthinkable gap at this stage of the campaign.

“A very, very important game,” is how Klopp described it at his pre-match press conference on Friday. “It won’t be over in November,” stated Guardiola, who says he will be without first-choice goalkeeper Ederson due to injury. Liverpool will believe that when they see it.

Other than that, it was all very respectful. Klopp referred to “the best manager in the world”, while Guardiola says City are facing “the strongest team in the world.” Both men know the power the other has at his disposal.

Clearly, there is genuine admiration between the two managers. How could there not be given the success Guardiola has had, and the way Klopp has consistently challenged his supremacy? Nobody has won more games as a manager against Guardiola than Klopp, remember.

In football, respect can quickly morph into enmity. Everybody gets along until they have something to compete for, and Liverpool and City, clearly, are competing for everything – at home and abroad. They are, with a nod to Juventus, the two most complete club teams in world football right now. No wonder they are butting heads.

Guardiola may have been among the first to congratulate Klopp following Liverpool’s Champions League success back in June, but he knows how to get under his skin as well. His comments about Sadio Mane’s “diving” last week were straight out of the Jose Mourinho playbook, a blatant attempt to plant a seed with the match officials ahead of Sunday’s game. They did not go down well at Anfield.

Klopp’s response was to bring up “tactical fouls”, something which City have been criticised for in the past, and which always prompts a defensive reaction from Guardiola. “If I could do it again, I wouldn’t say it,” Klopp later said. Believe that, and you’ll believe anything.

It may seem childish – and both managers, Guardiola in particular, have a tendency to use heavy sarcasm – but this is what happens when two top managers, and two top teams, find themselves competing. Remember Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger? Or Wenger and Jose Mourinho? Ferguson clashed with Roberto Mancini when the latter emerged as a genuine threat, just as he had with Kevin Keegan and Sir Kenny Dalglish in the 1990s.

Hopefully Klopp vs Guardiola won’t reach quite the same levels of pettiness – who could forget the lows of Mourinho vs Wenger – but there is no doubt the rivalry is good for English football. From a media perspective, it certainly makes for good copy.

Klopp played down the idea of “a battle” with fellow coaches when asked by  Goal  in New York back in July.

“I don’t need it,” he said. “I don’t need this very negative kind of emotion when I see my colleague a few yards away. I can still want to win the game with all I have without having all of that.”

Guardiola, of course, famously clashed with Mourinho – who hasn’t? – when the pair were in charge of Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively. Indeed, many in Spain believe that Mourinho’s style, and his desire to wage a psychological war through the media, was a key factor in Guardiola’s decision to leave Camp Nou in 2012. He was, to plenty of observers, worn down by the constant conflict with his rival.

Klopp is not Mourinho, of course, but it is interesting to note how Guardiola views this Liverpool team. In May, he said they were one of only two teams he has faced which have made him say ‘wow!’ – Luis Enrique’s Barca, of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, were the other.

He stated in May that winning the Premier League against Klopp’s team was “the most satisfaction I had as a manager”, and weeks later described Anfield as “a bugger of a ground.” The term ‘rent-free’ is one of those annoying modern football terms, but there is no doubt that the men from Merseyside have a place in City heads. “They scare me,” Guardiola told his assistant, Carlos Planchart, on the Amazon documentary  All or Nothing , and that was before Liverpool had won the European Cup and pushed them all the way in the Premier League.

On Sunday, he must face those fears. He must find a way to shut down Mo Salah, Mane and Roberto Firmino, while finding a way past Fabinho, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker. He has the players, but City have not won at Anfield since 2003, when Keegan was in charge, Peter Schmeichel was in goal and Robbie Fowler was up front. A different world.

Klopp’s routine after a home game is to invite the visiting manager for a post-match drink, and that will be no different this time. There will be smiles and handshakes pre-match, for sure.

After that, though, it’s war.

There are no friends at the top, remember. Only challengers.