‘They despise each other': Why Man City vs Liverpool could be the peak of the Premier League

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As excitement builds around the Premier League, there are different emotions at Anfield and Eastlands. This, in the words of one prominent source, “is why they despise each other”. The build-up to Sunday’s title showdown has already been amplified by a lot of noise.

On the Liverpool side, there has been ridiculous debate about the appointment of referee Anthony Taylor. On the Manchester City side, there have been complaints about “the timing” of another damaging Der Spiegel story. “Must be a big game coming up,” has been one common quip, as if serious German newspapers are Liverpool supporters.

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The reality is absolutely none of this affects the players. Figures like Kevin De Bruyne and Jordan Henderson don’t allow that. Neither do the managers. The players are too focused.

Everything is geared towards this. That doesn’t just apply to the squads, though.

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Circumstances may have aligned so we’re building up to the biggest Premier League game ever seen, and certainly the biggest in a decade.

As prone as the competition can be to hyperbole, that doesn’t feel the case here. Consider the stakes. Consider the previous fixtures of such a scale.

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In its 30 years of existence, very few Premier League games have ever had the title on the line. Almost none have had everything on the line. That is what is happening here.

City are going for the true treble, as they also aim for that long-awaited Champions League. Liverpool are going for an unprecedented quadruple, as well as a record-equalling 20th domestic title. It is all further charged by the fact they meet in the FA Cup semi-final next week, and are on course for the ultimate face-off in the Champions League final.

None of these showdowns between previous title contenders, broadly ranked below, get close to any of that.

Premier League title showdowns

2011-12 – Manchester City 1-0 Manchester United

2013-14 – Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea

1995-96 – Newcastle United 0-1 Manchester United

1997-98 – Manchester United 0-1 Arsenal

2018-19 – Manchester City 2-1 Liverpool

2013-14 – Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City

2002-03 – Arsenal 2-2 Manchester United

2015-16 – Manchester City 1-3 Leicester City

2009-10 – Manchester United 1-2 Chelsea

2001-02 – Manchester United 0-1 Arsenal

2008-09 – Manchester United 1-4 Liverpool

2020-21 – Liverpool 1-4 Manchester City

2007-08 – Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal

2017-18 – Manchester City 2-3 Manchester United

2010-11 – Manchester United 2-0 Chelsea

2007-08 – Chelsea 2-1 Manchester United

We could well be talking about a peak for the Premier League, and perhaps European football.

The latter is why this probably surpasses Manchester United’s rivalry with Arsenal. More of their games from 1996 to 2005 had greater ferocity, sure, but that emotion overlooked one unavoidable reality. Until 2004, Arsenal were never close to Champions League contention. The two never met in Europe, nor in many truly consequential late-season league games. We were never talking about the two best teams in Europe together, over such a stretch. Not even Chelsea-United 2008 got to those levels, given how much else was going on.

Now, it’s all about this. We are seeing something equivalent to a decade of Clasicos from 2009 to 2019, where the fixture is clearly the highest level of football on the planet.

Much of that comes from both the best and the worst of the sport, further firing the rivalry.

Many involved, certainly on the City side, feel the worst of emotion stems from the objects thrown at their bus ahead of the 2017-18 Champions League quarter-final first leg.

“That moment, things changed,” Vincent Kompany said in his book. “The rivalry increased and they became our No.1 team to beat.

“Now there was more tension. None of us were sitting on that coach saying they were scared but it was very unpleasant and should never have been allowed to happen. I do think that incident changed the way that a lot of neutrals looked at Liverpool.”

It certainly changed the way City looked at them, but there was of course another element. A sense of righteous fury served Pep Guardiola’s side because they were starting to get aggravated at ideas Jurgen Klopp had figured them out. That thunderous 3-0 win at Anfield was the second of three consecutive Liverpool victories, the first of which had been a commanding 4-3 top-flight win that ended City’s aspirations of an “invincible” season.

It fostered the sense something was growing.

The rivalry, which of course started with Klopp and Guardiola arriving, had previously been amicable. They tend to be when the Catalan enjoys superiority, as had continued from Germany. It’s all high fives and high praise.

It changes when Guardiola starts losing. “He isn’t so friendly,” one top European manager says. “Pep can be a bit fragile.”

Klopp is not a great loser himself. He can get more prickly in defeat than most top coaches. He just hasn’t had to suffer that too much against Guardiola’s City. Klopp has only lost to them four times in 14 games, against five victories, and another Community Shield win on penalties.

‘They despise each other’: Why Man City vs Liverpool could be the peak of the Premier League
© Provided by The Independent (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

The problem wasn’t beating City in individual games, though. It was beating them over a season. That, for a time, seemed a feat too far for Liverpool.

A low had come in the title race that went to the greatest heights. In 2018-19, Liverpool somehow pushed themselves to 97 points – only for City to get one point more. It seemed to sum up the dynamic. The January game – where City won 2-1 thanks to a goal-line call that went to centimetres – was as symbolic as it was decisive, serving as a metaphor for the season as well as how the Manchester club always had more.

This fed into Liverpool’s frustration at how City always had more money, as well as what they were as a club. It was not just Liverpool against City, after all. It was Fenway Sports Group against Abu Dhabi, venture capitalists against a state.

It is why the latest allegations published by Der Spiegel appear all the more relevant. They point to a further extent of the connection between Abu Dhabi and City, and consequently explain why the club – and this fixture – are where they are.

Klopp himself has made comments. The Liverpool hierarchy have been furious. There have been times when they have felt almost helpless, aghast that they could do almost everything right and still end up with nothing. It didn’t help that there has been long-term tension about recruitment and even young players.

An initial flashpoint came over the signing of Raheem Sterling, the fall-out of which can still be heard in the crowd these days. Guardiola seems to almost make a point of playing him against Liverpool at home, where he excels compared to Anfield. City got him in 2015 simply because they could pay more.

Multiple sources say FSG “hated and feared” City from the start. John W Henry often expressed bemusement about how the takeover had happened. He certainly felt “let down” by Uefa’s lack of steel in tackling City’s spending. The outcome of the Court of Arbitration for Sport case still rankles, and influenced Liverpool’s moves in both Project Big Picture and the European Super League.

That does point to the other side of the problem here.

Although it is obvious that states should not be allowed control clubs, and that it is almost inevitable that will create terminal inequality, it is an indictment of football’s governance that such takeovers have been necessary to even compete with the traditional powers. This is what FSG were buying, and banking on.

Very few clubs have Liverpool’s international profile. Every regulation in football favours and multiples this, in a way no one else can manage. It doesn’t encourage parity. You only have to look at the pending “reforms” of the Champions League.

City have always been irritated at how this has not been pointed out, and constantly felt “the darlings” of Liverpool were overpraised. They argue their influence disrupts the old “cartel”.

It’s just that’s a bit rich when the Big Six voting bloc – not to mention the Super League – proves City are now very much part of that cartel. Nor would it excuse what they are anyway.

A state’s wealth means they are stretching the game’s competitive balance even more, not just disrupting it but destroying it, and all for the most questionable aims.

Liverpool, for all their own flaws under venture capitalists, have had to maximise every virtue to just keep up.

It is why Klopp has done an immense job, especially with that 2019-20 title. If it hadn’t been for that, we’d be talking about five successive championships for City.

That points to one other difference between the clubs. While City had the resources to ensure everything was built towards Guardiola’s appointment, it feels like nothing at Liverpool could have happened without Klopp.

Everything has centred around the German, even their superb recruitment. Klopp has led the way in ensuring each area of the club is maximised. This season, through patient building, it has led to a squad that can compete with City as well as a first XI. Everything follows Klopp, just as everyone follows him.

‘They despise each other’: Why Man City vs Liverpool could be the peak of the Premier League
© Provided by The Independent (AFP via Getty Images)

That is how they can go to these points returns.

That is how they have been able to go toe to toe with City for so long. Since August 2018, and the point when Liverpool put the “final piece” in a title-winning side with the signing of Alisson, the points records have been remarkable. City have 338 out of a possible 432, Liverpool 337. That’s 73 more than the next best, at Chelsea.

While that reflects genuine sporting greatness, though, it is not necessarily great for football.

This is not like the old days, where it was all about the will of such historic managers alone. Great managers could regularly bring teams to 80 points. So often going past that requires more. It requires an unequal economic landscape.

Liverpool can fairly point to how they’ve overachieved in that landscape, but the gaps don’t look that big from other vantage points in the Premier League, or Europe.

To anyone outside the elite, these are still just two super clubs that have the immense resources required to compete.

One is the wealthiest, with a lot of intelligence. The other is the most intelligent, with a lot of wealth.

It is also why Sunday’s game is all the more massive.

For all the comparisons of remaining fixtures, the evidence from both 2018-19 and this season is that these teams are too good. That run-in three years ago was at once the highest-quality title race and the least dramatic. They were both too strong to allow slips. They both… just won. The only twist, so to speak, was from the fact that both won the trophy the other wanted. It only added to the acrimony.

It looks like similar might happen now. The story of this race is not that City stumbled, since they have only dropped points to four clubs. It is that Liverpool have risen. They’ve returned to relentless levels.

They have now won 10 in a row in the league, to match City’s previous 12. It’s a strong possibility that both win all their other fixtures.

That puts all the more pressure on Liverpool to win this, to take this chance. They’re in the form. They feel an air of something happening.

There should be no concern about a Klopp side trying to seize it, though.

That is one of the great things about this fixture, that makes it so tantalising. Both of these managers will be willing to go for it. Such adventure only adds to their greatness. Just as they have barely let up in terms of points, they have barely let up in these games. So many of these fixtures have been played at high speed, and yet with the highest quality.

‘They despise each other’: Why Man City vs Liverpool could be the peak of the Premier League
© Provided by The Independent (Getty Images)

Take your pick from so many meetings. At least two, if not more, could easily be called the greatest Premier League game ever. This season’s earlier 2-2 and the 2-1 from January 2019 stand out, but so many are up there. It is no coincidence that the most muted came amid Covid football. Sunday will see roaring crowds, that add just another element: the right kind of noise.

It also means this has the potential to surpass them all. We are talking about a peak, after all.

It is the pinnacle of modern football, both sides going to the limit. On the sideline, we have two great managers fully entrusted to come up with something inspired to win. On the pitch, we have two finely tuned teams fully geared towards the most intense play.

Such is their mark on the game that both have naturally influenced the other. These days, Bernardo Silva or Joao Cancelo are as likely to suddenly surge forward as any Klopp team. Liverpool are meanwhile as likely to keep the ball as any Guardiola side.

That is a classic case of the best of the best coming up against each other and pushing each other on, so they become less distinguishable but even more compelling.

This was the tone struck when Klopp and Guardiola had one of their many amicable moments after the 2019 Champions League final. For all the rancour, there is huge respect. That was displayed when Guardiola rang Klopp to congratulate him, and they “promised to kick each other’s butts again next season”. They have ended up doing so again… and again and again.

This season already looks a repeat of 2018-19, except on another level.

Sunday may yet give us something we haven’t seen before. It comes from a lot of loathing, and a lot of causes of concern for the game.

It also gives us the ultimate in the game, and so much to admire.

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