Thursday 16 August 2018

Brian Kerr: Champions League distracts from derby dilemmas

Jurgen Klopp (left) and Pep Guardiola will both have one eye on Tuesday’s Champions League second-leg tie during today’s games. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Jurgen Klopp (left) and Pep Guardiola will both have one eye on Tuesday’s Champions League second-leg tie during today’s games. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Derby day in the north-west but only geography and history gives today's two fixtures with any meaningful context.

Liverpool and Manchester City have loftier priorities, stretching far beyond the few hundred yards of Stanley Park that separates Anfield from Goodison or the short drive from Old Trafford to the Etihad.

City could win the Premier League title today by defeating United but the immediate thrill of such an achievement will be cast alongside their perilous existence in this season's Champions League.

Liverpool could slip past United in the table should they extend their lengthy streak of successes against Everton, including the most recent FA Cup win in January.

But domestic concerns will not detain them this weekend. They may like to finish second in England but they want to finish first in Europe.

Even though today's derbies pale in significance for both teams, you sense City don't mind having another game to focus on. On the other hand, Liverpool could probably do without it.

Both will reshuffle their starting line-ups with an eye to Tuesday's second leg at the Etihad. Sometimes local pride must take a back seat.

Earlier this season, we alluded to the almost-hysterical reaction in some quarters when Jurgen Klopp rotated his squad for the first Merseyside derby in December.

Liverpool gifted a sloppy, late penalty to allow Everton to share the spoils at Anfield and there were howls of outrage from supporters for whom the omission of Roberto Firminio and Filipe Coutinho reflected the German's inability to grasp the meaning of the 124-year history of the fixture.

Longer

"He is playing a longer game," we noted then. And how they played it on Wednesday.

Liverpool fans may not give a monkey's if the youth team is sent out today once their side progress in Europe.

They need to preserve their zest; City need to rediscover theirs.

On Wednesday, for all the fuss of the team bus and the quirky City selection, what struck me most was the vast difference in energy between the two sides.

Liverpool were so much fresher against a team who themselves are also renowned for their energy.

Having absorbed the lessons of successive seasons when they visibly buckled at the turn of the year due to their high-intensity game, Klopp has adapted this season and Wednesday's first-half brought its just rewards.

The point is that their supporters now see the bigger picture, too.

You could see that powerful extent of that emotional connection between the crowd and the team at Anfield on Wednesday night.

City's supporters may struggle to make sense of the bigger picture today.

The noisy neighbours may yet again subdue United but can they possibly transform the Etihad into a similar cauldron when they receive Liverpool on Tuesday? It is not just the players on the pitch that need to respond.

At times, the Etihad resembles an art gallery of moving pictures; there is so much beauty in Pep's team but the supporters have become used to admiring their team, rather than passionately engaging with it in a sterile stadium with such a short history.

Anfield showed you can combine both; even when under the cosh in the second-half, the fans recognised that this was when their players required as much encouragement as earlier when they were running the show.

The manner of Liverpool's win, producing an outcome without an conceding an away goal, suggests that is they who will progress.

Yet there is enough evidence this season that might offer City encouragement of a comeback.

Klopp's men have crumbled before to Spurs and, of course, City too but, more pointedly, in Sevilla when 3-0 up at half-time.

This is the current situation with double the time remaining. But there was a resilience about them which was almost surprising.

Liverpool will miss the suspended Jordan Henderson and, possibly, Mo Salah. With Emre Can a major doubt, Georginio Wijnaldum looks likely to step in.

If City can get a run early on, as Liverpool did on Wednesday, they can attempt to expose those doubts, particularly if Guardiola gets his selection right and Sergio Aguero is fit and available .

I'd still maintain what City have done is remarkable and enjoyable to watch. It's been adventurous. It hasn't been revolutionary, it's been evolutionary.

They followed the functionality of the Chelsea, Leicester and even the last City title-winning sides and nobody has been as consistently devastating in attack as they have in the league.

The criticisms of Pep's defence were there during his time at Barcelona but they were the most brilliant team of the last 30 years.

However, he does need to win the Champions League to revive talk of comparisons with that great Barça side.

There is an arrogance in his approach without yet owning the right to invincibility. But there is a bravery and a courage that is admirable.

Some say great teams must have great defences but he has done it in a different way.

Barcelona did not have a formidable defence but they did have some of the greatest players of any era. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta.

Surge

Wednesday night resembled previous mini-collapses in games for Bayern Munich against Barcelona and for City last season against Monaco, when his side hasn't been able to subdue the opposition's surge and there has been a rat-a-tat-tat concession of goals.

A lot of his players on Wednesday were inexperienced at this level and wouldn't have witnessed that intensity in the build-up.

They all declared that the bus attack prior to the game was no excuse but it was almost as if they were straining to do so.

The pitch has the same dimensions and they play with the same ball so it shouldn't affect their football ability but it can affect their mentality.

City's team may have spectacular footballers but perhaps Liverpool also exposed a flaw in their collective character.

This is not a team of hard-nosed players, with the possible exception of David Silva or Vincent Kompany. And few of them are serial winners.

What was more relevant is not that Guard iola got it wrong but Klopp got it right in his seventh victory against the Spaniard.

Liverpool adapted; they forced errors but not as they had done in the league game when they pressed as far as the goal-keeper.

This time they allowed them to play out a bit and Liverpool remained tightly compact, in a well-organised, planned way.

Closer to their own box, they identified Fernandinho was the least threatening free man, allowing the seven outfield players behind the ball to nullify the threat of De Bruyne and Silva. City were always out-numbered.

Cusihion

Armed by the three-goal cushion, Liverpool retreated somewhat after the break; Leroy Sane and substitute Raheem Sterling rarely managed to get behind the outstanding Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.

City must try to refocus today and, in United, may be presented with a more rigid defensive set-up than they faced in the second-half on Wednesday in front of the Kop.

Jose Mourinho is highly unlikely to mirror Klopp's shock-and-awe approach from the start.

United fans will approach the Manchester derby with their own set of dilemmas.

Already subdued by City's domestic dominance, they would at least take some solace in further damaging the neighbours' noisy declaration that they can supplant them as kings of Europe, as well as England.

The irony is that it might serve to propel Liverpool closer to a European title which would only remind United of their own supine exit to Sevilla last month.

Therefore, Jose Mourinho's greatest challenge this month is not exposing City doubts but erasing his own; the FA Cup clash with Spurs remains the only chance to re-confirm his self-styled status as a serial trophy winner, if not an entertainer.

When the sides last met in the 16th game of the campaign, United were eight points behind but after a game when their possession stats were the lowest since records began, the Red Devils boss was forced to grudgingly concede the title to a "lucky" Manchester City.

Like then, City will know they will dominate possession, as is also likely this Tuesday but the key for Pep's men will be to rediscovering the verve and subtlety that eluded them against Liverpool.

Mourinho's approach, predictably, will be primarily to stifle that ambition.

It's hard to predict if he is prepared to risk Paul Pogba's unreliable defensive qualities for this game. But if he is to be included in a three-man midfield with Anders Herrera partnering Nemanja Matic as holders, there may be solidity but less threat, too.

With Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez in, there will only be room for one other forward.

Against Liverpool, and without the injured Pogba, he played an attacking quartet and was rewarded with victory through Marcus Rashford's excellence.

Trick

It remains to be seen if Mourinho attempts to repeat that particular trick.

Liverpool will encounter their own difficulties against the Toffees in Goodison, yet it will hardly equate to what happened in December, when their dominance was such that they made 644 passes to Everton's measly 99. And yet Everton somehow managed to wrangle a draw on that occasion.

Fireman Sam, drafted in to save a sticky situation, has done just that, a trademark characteristic of his management career.

Since Virgil van Dijk's goal condemned them to a Cup exit in January, their season has trundled along in uneventful fashion, something that is also typical of teams he has managed.

A big result today may persuade the owners to stick with him, or at least prompt the always-confident Allardyce that he would be willing to stay with them.

However, a bit like United casting their eyes enviously across their city, Everton fans look at Liverpool and it must seem as if the footballing world is simply passing them by, despite heavy investment from the new owners last summer.

On derby day, United and Everton are looking to emerge from the shadows of their upwardly mobile neighbours but, for once, today's results are secondary to the much bigger football picture.

There may well be a title coronation in Manchester today but Liverpool remain primed to ensure that the crown sits uneasily upon their heads.

Irish Independent

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