Soccer

Pep Guardiola’s Liverpool comments reveal the sharp edge to ‘friendly’ Manchester City rivalry

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp with Manchester City counterpart Pep Guardiola

If it feels like it was only a few weeks ago that everyone was describing Manchester City and Liverpool’s rivalry as friendly – perhaps even too friendly – that’s because it was.

It is just about a month since the 2-2 draw at the Etihad ended with hugs between the clubs’ respective Brazilian contingents, Kevin De Bruyne revealing he chats to Virgil van Dijk on the school run, and one of the most over-enthusiastic high fives ever seen between Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.

A lot has changed in the short time since – Liverpool have reached the Champions League final, for starters, while City have opened up a three-point gap on their rivals at the top of the Premier League following Sunday’s 5-0 win over Newcastle United – but the public-facing element of the rivalry had remained as good natured as ever.

Until now, perhaps. There is a different side to the Premier League’s present day duopoly and it was captured briefly in a post-match interview with beIN Sports on Sunday when, unprompted, Guardiola claimed: “Everyone in this country supports Liverpool, the media and everyone.”

The City manager spelled out his reasoning simply and plainly and even found room for a dig. “It’s because Liverpool has an incredible history behind [them] in European competition – not in Premier Leagues, because they’ve won one in 30 years – but it’s not a problem at all,” he said. “The situation is what it is.”

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That was not the last of it, either. The opening question of his post-match press conference asked if he was pleased with how his players had recovered from the disappointment of their stunning Champions League exit in midweek. “Did you have any doubts? Yes?,” he replied. “You are a Liverpool fan…”

The tone of that press conference answer was light-hearted and jovial rather than paranoid and accusatory, but coming immediately after his beIN Sports interview, it was clear that this notion of a widespread pro-Liverpool sentiment, emanating partly from the media, has been bothering him.

Guardiola has always been incredibly respectful in his comments regarding Klopp, his players and the success Liverpool have achieved as a team over the past few years, considering the greatest rivals of his managerial career. He speaks just as glowingly about their history and, in fact, will often suggest that it is an advantage.

There was the time, earlier this season after the 2-2 draw away to Liverpool in October, that he questioned the officiating of referee Paul Tierney and his decision not to send off James Milner for a foul on Phil Foden. “It’s Anfield, it’s Old Trafford. In our situation a City player is sent off, 100 per cent.”

Mohamed Salah was named FWA Footballer of the Year last month

Or take just a few weeks ago, when news of Mohamed Salah being named the FWA’s Footballer of the Year was greeted by Guardiola with the claim that “it’s normal they win all the awards”. He said similar in 2020, when Kevin De Bruyne was up for the PFA’s equivalent: “This award is always for Liverpool,” he lamented. De Bruyne won it anyway in a year where Liverpool won the title, though Jordan Henderson picked up the writers’ gong.

It all speaks to a rivalry that, while friendly on-the-pitch, is highly competitive off it. There is a sharper edge to relations between City and Liverpool behind the scenes, honed not by red cards and reducers but by letters to appeals panels and alleged data breaches.

Guardiola is not removed from this and one thing that still smarts for him and many at the Etihad was the move by nine of their top-flight rivals – Liverpool included – to suspend City from European competition while the appeal against their two-year Champions League ban was heard in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

This was referenced by Guardiola once more in the build-up to Sunday’s visit from Newcastle, while the pain of last week’s Champions League semi-final exit to Real Madrid was still raw. “These nine teams push and I know here [in my head] who they are,” he warned.

That incident contributed to a siege mentality which – justifiably felt or not – Guardiola would apparently like to tap into during these crucial final weeks of the season. His comments on Liverpool overshadowed what could be far more consequential news: that Ruben Dias, Kyle Walker and John Stones will miss the rest of the season through injury.

Though expected to collect the seven points required to win a fourth title in five seasons, the loss of three members of last year’s championship-winning back four is a significant blow. City bounced back from one setback against Newcastle, now must manage their way through another over the course of the next fortnight.

It is an obstacle, though perhaps not as great an obstacle as overcoming the supposed Liverpool-Manchester United Industrial Complex. And Guardiola suggested that if he can get his players and supporters to believe they can do that, they will believe they can do anything.

“Liverpool, alongside United, it’s the most famous team with what they have done in history – in terms of titles, legacy, history, dramas, for many, many things,” he added on Sunday. “But we are in the last 10,11 years being there.

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“I know sometimes we are uncomfortable but I don’t care if the people want Liverpool to win more than us. It’s not an issue. It’s normal. Maybe they have more supporters all around the world and in England maybe more support Liverpool than us.

“This is not the question. The question is today, before the start of the game, the people cheering and supporting us more than ever in one home game, because they know that even being out of the Champions League, we can rely on those players. The support was amazing and hopefully we can arrive in the last game here with a chance to be champion.”

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