For a long time, there was an unwavering respect that seemed to change how the Premier League packaged its rivalries.
Throughout much of the last 25 years, football supporters in this land have been force fed a diet of sniping, dig, jabs and, of course, the fabled ‘mind games’ in the coverage of the country biggest and best footballing sides.
From Manchester United and Newcastle with Alex Ferguson and Kevin Keegan, through to Jose Mourinho’s bitter disputes with Rafa Benitez and Arsene Wenger, English football has often thrived on its ability to sharpen hostility’s edge. Controversy creates cash, so the saying goes.
The narrative – to coin that tedious buzzword – across much of those top-flight skirmishes was to build up and hype tensions and feuds to provide the blockbuster entertainment that the Premier League’s market sellers insist make it the world best. How else would elite sport from world-class athletes be sold to the masses?
Last season, though, things were different. For the better, so might argue.
For so long,Liverpooland Manchester City’s rivalry was built on the mutual pursuit of greatness. As far asJurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiolawere concerned, the extraneous gimmicks and disingenuous conflicts were simply not needed as they battled for sporting supremacy.
Who is the better team? That was the only question asked as the two clubs careered towards record-breaking achievements at the back end of last season. Their fight was founded on the challenge only, as City edged out the Reds 98 points to 97 in one of the most thrilling races in recent memory.
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It was not a run to the post that was defined by lapses, mishaps and mistakes, but rather shaped by both teams’ remarkable levels of consistency. Liverpool won their final nine games to push their adversaries into final minutes of the 38 – game campaign.
(For an all too fleeting period on May 12, they were even heading for title glory before Sergio Aguero level up Glenn Murray’s opener at Brighton 40 seconds after Reds fans had dared to dream.
For their part, City racked up an incredible 14 successive wins en route to a second title under Guardiola, finishing just two short a historic 100 – point tally earned the season previous.
The nerveless space race was played out without a drop of animosity on either side.Guardiola, however, moved the goalposts last week.
Asked about Liverpool’s latest, last-gasp winner,scored at Aston Villa last Saturday, the Catalan spotted an opportunity ahead of the huge clash between England’s two teams at Anfield.
“Sometimes he’s diving, sometimes he has this talent to score incredible goals in the last minute,” noted Guardiola as he reflected on Sadio Mane’spoints-winning intervention at Villa Park.
To many, the inference was clear. Shining a spotlight on Mane’s perceived theatrics would inevitably bring attention. Enough, maybe, for official Michael Oliver to think twice if the Liverpool player goes down inside the penalty area at Anfield this Sunday. It was a transparent and calculated ploy.
After so many years fighting it out with Mourinho in Spain, Guardiola appeared to lend a trick straight from page one of the combative Portuguese’s manual. Klopp tried his best not to get drawn into the tit-for-tat, but pointedly returned a volley after aless-than-subtle hint about City’s use of tactical and cynical fouls.
“I couldn’t really believe it to be honest and then I saw it,” the Liverpool manager said this week. “I am not sure if Pep spoke in that moment about Sadio or the team – both is not too nice to be honest.”
“I am not interested in these kind of things. not to mention tactical fouls. That is maybe already too much. “
Klopp insisted he didn’t want to put” oil on the fire “before Guardiola, curiously, used theexact same phrase a day lateras he talked himself into a contrite climb-down on his Mane criticism.
“In the 94 th minute like it was against Leicester, it was a penalty, it was ‘wow’ , “offered Guardiola by way of mitigation. “That was the intention for my comment. Far away from my intention was to say Sadio is this type of player because I admire him a lot.”
Mane had been booked in the first half at Villa Park for simulation, an incident Guardiola will have only seen via social media, given the 3pm Saturday kick-off of Liverpool’s game in the midlands. It wasn’t the first time the Manchester City manager had laid bare how much attention he pays to a side he has previously labeled the toughest of his career.
Sitting in Goodison Park earlier this season, perhaps emboldened by the shadowy specter of Anfield across Stanley Park, Guardiola mentioned Liverpool, unprompted, after seeing off the threat of Everton.
“We know which team we are playing at the moment, they are in front , seven wins in a row, “he said of Liverpool. “Playing good football with quality and they are the champions of Europe. This is our rival, we know we cannot drop too many points because last season they lost one game.”
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Like Guardiola, Klopp wasalso moved to clarify his own commentsfrom earlier in the week when he attempted to diffuse tensions before Sunday’s blockbuster.
“I couldn ‘t have more respect for Pep Guardiola, that’s how it is, “he said.” I’ve known him for so long, it’s a big thing for me to be his contender. It’s great. “
Make no mistake, however much the needle of respect has veered from both sides this week, Guardiola knows how big a threat this Liverpool team are to his plans for a third straight Premier League crown.
Victory on Sunday and the Premier League leaders will ride off into the international break with a nine-point advantage. Whether Guardiola wants to admit it or not, Klopp’s Liverpool are in his head. public utterances have made that all too clear already this season.
Is this the week the rivalry become personal? Those in charge of selling subscriptions might decree that it was.