London: Pep Guardiola has laid bare the scale of the task facing Manchester City at Anfield.
Not only will the champions face a Liverpool team who, he said, are the “strongest in the world” but will do so in an arena which is the “toughest stadium in Europe to go to”.
Even if his intent was surely to motivate his players, to appeal to their competitive nature and pride, the City manager should know - Anfield is the only place he has been to at least three times and not won.
Famously he called it “a b--- of a ground” because that has happened against no other team - in Spain, Germany or England - in his storied coaching career. And victory is essential for the champions; a defeat is unthinkable. Even in November. It really is set to be a Super Sunday between, arguably, the two most exciting club sides in world football with Jurgen Klopp even urging the hot dog sellers to up their game.
If Liverpool were to win they would open up a nine-point lead over City that, with 26 Premier League games to go, would surely not appear insurmountable and especially for a team of City’s awesome capabilities. Except this is Klopp’s Liverpool and a relentless Liverpool, as Guardiola acknowledged, who lost just once in the league last season, albeit to City at the Etihad in January when there were millimetres between the teams, literally, with a John Stones goal-line clearance effectively settling the title.
“I know what is going to happen if we lose. People will say it’s over but [there are] a lot of games to play and [my] experience in sport is that you have to fight until the end,” Guardiola said.
“I don’t know if it will be over - it will be more difficult if one season they’ve lost one game and this season they are unbeaten so you have to imagine they are not going to lose too many games but the season is long, a lot of games and situations that can happen.”
The situation at Anfield is so eagerly anticipated, not least because of the increasingly fierce rivalry, and dislike, between the clubs, if not the managers.
However, there was even a surprising shift on that front in the past week with Guardiola first accusing Liverpool and apparently more specifically Sadio Mane, of “diving” and Klopp responding with a withering line. “I promise not to mention tactical fouls,” he said about a subject that Guardiola responds to with a “no comment”.
However, it remains, as with both managers’ press conferences on Friday, a personal rivalry without vitriol despite its intensity.
That accord does not extend to the clubs or the fans and City were furious after their bus was attacked before last year’s Champions League quarter-final first leg on its way to Anfield, while Liverpool were stunned by footage of City players singing a derogatory version of “Allez, allez, allez” on their plane back from Brighton to Manchester after beating Liverpool to the title last May.
On the pitch they benchmark themselves against each other, which makes the atmosphere even more febrile.
But the most fascinating factor is that of City playing at Anfield, where they have won only once in 38 years and not since May 2003, when Nicolas Anelka scored his second goal, in injury time, to secure a 2-1 win. City have lost 15 of the 22 fixtures in the Premier League era.
Remarkably, it means that City have never won there under Abu Dhabi ownership despite what they have achieved in the past decade. Up until last season’s goalless draw, when Riyad Mahrez missed a late penalty, they had lost each game since 2013-14 - despite finishing every campaign higher in the league.
Players such as Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kompany have not tasted success there. And neither has Guardiola, who knows that Klopp can whip up Anfield like no other Liverpool manager in -recent years.
“There’s something about it you will find in no other stadium in the world,” Guardiola told the Catalonian newspaper Ara in July as Barcelona still reeled from their extraordinary Champions League capitulation. “They score a goal and over the next five minutes you feel that you’ll receive another four. You feel small and the rival players seem to be all over.”
Liverpool, meanwhile, do not want to experience a repeat of last season when they narrowly lost the title race to City and will look to take all three points on Sunday, goalkeeper Alisson Becker has said.
“Last season we had a great experience, an almost perfect season,” Alisson said in an interview. “We lost one game and that one game was against City. We know how big this game is for us... for everyone.
“In the end it is just three more important points but Manchester City have been the best team in the league for the last few years so we need to give everything to win this game.”
Is Anfield therefore the hardest place to go? Guardiola was asked directly at his press conference. “They’re an exceptional team, the stadium makes an influence, of course, the history speaks for itself. Of course it’s something special, but I think it’s more for the quality of the team and what they do, the quality for the players and the manager that they have. I believe more in that,” he said before adding: “Right now it’s one of the toughest ones, I would say right now it’s the toughest stadium in Europe to go to.”
Guardiola continued: “For me as a manager, I said last season when we won the Premier League, that they are the best contender I’ve faced in my career.
“That’s why to win this league was one of the biggest achievements we’ve achieved as a club, as a person, and it remains the same. So probably right now they are the strongest team in the world.”
The task for City has been made more difficult because goalkeeper Ederson, who was substituted at half-time during the Champions League tie away to Atalanta in midweek, is out through a muscle injury. “He’s not able to play. I don’t know [how long he will be out for]. But he cannot play,” said Guardiola.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019 with inputs from agencies
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