Manchester City vs Liverpool is English football’s greatest-ever rivalry

In their distinctive ways, the City and Liverpool coach have changed how the game is played, Guardiola’s influence extended across the world as more teams try to follow a possession-based model, while every major European league now has at least one Klopp imitator, trying to replicate his methods of winning back possession as high up the pitch as possible. Every emerging coach is choosing either Guardiola or Klopp’s way. For all their influences, whether Johan Cruyff or Arrigo Sacchi, they have taken ownership of their particular style.

They have already rewritten club records. Now they are on the threshold of doing so again.

So much is being said and written about Liverpool’s pursuit of four trophies. What about City’s bid to match Manchester United’s treble of 1999?

It seems to have been overlooked that City are the favourites to win the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup. Why? Because Liverpool are always a bigger news story.

The disproportionate focus on Liverpool’s quadruple bid above City’s treble dream cuts to the heart of another key element of the rivalry. What makes their competition more fierce is the knowledge that the other is the major obstacle to achieving their ambition, and there are clear philosophical differences in how the clubs operate and are perceived. 

Liverpool love the fact that everything changed when Fenway Sports Group appointed Klopp, while no matter how much Guardiola has won and goes on to achieve, neutrals will always see the arrival of Sheikh Mansour as the game-changer for City. Liverpool would like a little of what City have – the unlimited funds so that contract negotiations with star players like Mohamed Salah do not become so complicated – while City would like more of Liverpool’s global popularity, and their European nights to have Anfield’s aura.

It will burn at City that, even now, whenever Liverpool play them Klopp is adept at making it sound like an underdog story. But he is right to do so.

‘Klopp’s achievements are extraordinary’

Nobody at City, Chelsea or Manchester United believed Liverpool would revive themselves to become the power they are. They knew Klopp was good, but in 2015 the relative resources at Anfield compared to their rivals made it seem highly unlikely the club would be so competitive as to become the “pain in the arse” Guardiola has spoken of this season. 

In my first Telegraph column five years ago, I wrote this: “I am not convinced Jurgen Klopp will ever be able to bring the title back to Anfield. How can Liverpool compete with three of the wealthiest clubs in the world?”

Not many beyond Liverpool were arguing against those words. Klopp’s achievements are more extraordinary given what he has been up against, especially in the form of City and their ability to outspend everyone. That reality – City knowing that if they win it is expected while if Liverpool do so they are beating the odds – means the extra edge is always there.

The irony is that while City will resent Liverpool receiving so much media attention for their quest for four trophies, Klopp would rather it was Guardiola being asked about the treble than he about the quadruple.

The on-field differences elevate the rivalry, too.

Whenever City meets Liverpool, I see it as the best team in the world with the ball coming up against the best team in the world without it. That is a little simplistic. Liverpool are well-tuned at keeping possession, and City expertly drilled to get it back, but there is a style contrast which makes it one of the most tactically exciting games.

City and Liverpool’s Champions League quarter-final first leg victories in midweek over Atletico Madrid and Benfica confirmed why they are the teams everyone else most wants to avoid.

A collision with each other to decide where the trophies go has felt inevitable for months. The Etihad on Sunday, and then Wembley next week, will show where the balance of power lies. Do not rule out another meeting in Paris in May.

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