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Comment: Guardiola and City need to be wary of a Liverpool 'rope-a-dope'

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Peter Powell/Reuters
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Peter Powell/Reuters
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

It's one of sport's great truisms that styles make fights which, at the elite level, is why it's so hard to predict what is coming next.

Muhammad Ali won twice and lost once against Ken Norton in three fights which went the distance across 39 rounds, with Norton breaking Ali's jaw in the opener.

The wars against Joe Frazier took even more out of Ali and the trilogy only came to a conclusion when Frazier's trainer wouldn't allow him to go in for what would have been the 42nd round between the pair

In contrast, it took George Foreman just five minutes to knock Norton down three times before the beating was stopped in the second round.

Frazier was handed an even more comprehensive hiding as Foreman made him look like a yo-yo with six knockdowns inside four and a half minutes.

And yet, in his most famous victory, Ali found a way to dispatch Foreman that he couldn't manage against either Norton or Frazier with an eighth-round knockout.

For most of the season, Manchester City have resembled Foreman as they approached their opponents with a kind of beautiful brutality which has regularly left their vanquished foes facing a barrage of criticism for not even throwing a punch.

In Zaire, Ali allowed Foreman become exhausted by absorbing his punches while lying back on the ropes - as George Plimpton put it, "like a man leaning out his window trying to see if there was something on his roof".

While it might be stretching the analogy to think that City could punch themselves out, there is always a danger with Pep Guardiola teams that their greatest strengths can be used against them.

At Barcelona, this was rarely the case simply because they were the best team in the world both with and without the ball.

In training, players were constantly put under the sort of intense pressure in possession which often made competitive matches easier than training games.

If teams pressed them with intensity, they knew they had faced worse on a daily basis. If they didn't, usually, Barcelona found a way to deliver a death by a thousand cuts.

In the rarefied air of the Champions League knockout stages with Bayern Munich, however, it was different.

In 2014, Bayern had better possession but Real Madrid seized their chance for a 1-0 first leg win at home, and ruthlessly exploited their opportunities in the second leg to go through 5-0 on aggregate.

The following season, Guardiola doubled-down on his attacking philosophy leaving his defence 3 v 3 against Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar for an engrossing game but one in which the team landing the first punch would win. It took Barcelona until the 77th minute to strike, and they won 3-0.

Chaos

In his final season in Munich, Guardiola could justifiably claim to have been unlucky against Atletico Madrid in being eliminated on away goals but they at least delivered greater control rather than drowning in the chaos of the previous two defeats.

A similar tactical approach against Liverpool, particularly in the away leg on Wednesday, should allow for City's superior ability on the ball to see them through across two games but the danger remains of them playing into Liverpool's hands by trusting in their ability a little too much.

Last season against Monaco, City managed the remarkable feat of scoring six times in two games and it still not being enough, and given that the two league games between City and Liverpool this season have produced 12 goals, Liverpool will be hoping for a similar shoot-out.

In September, Sadio Mane's early red card changed the complexion of the game which City won 5-0 but it's the return match at Anfield that Jurgen Klopp will use as the template.

City produced several moments of superb football and could easily have won but the 10 minute period after half-time in which Roberto Firmino, Mané and Mo Salah scored to put Liverpool 4-1 up should be held up as exactly the type of scenario City need to avoid.

Obviously, not conceding goals is desirable but it was City's lack of composure which was most startling as their technique and passing ability deserted them amid the type of roller-coaster atmosphere which Liverpool are capable of creating and which City have rarely faced this season.

City are 18 points clear of Liverpool and have bludgeoned most of the Nortons and Fraziers of the Premier League.

However, like Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, they couldn't find an answer at Anfield when what had previously been so successful suddenly wasn't working.

As ever under Guardiola, there was never a sense that his team might just clip the ball over the top to give the defence a breather and it's this confidence in their own ability in building from the back which Liverpool will try to exploit on Wednesday.

Kevin De Bruyne or David Silva are good enough to punish teams who over-commit but Kyle Walker, Fabien Delph, John Stones, Vincent Kompany, Aymeric Laporte or Nicolas Otamendi have to get the ball to them in the first place.

In possession, none of them have the same level of comfort as the players Guardiola had at either Barcelona or Bayern which is what makes asking them to play in the same way a risky strategy especially against elite teams.

In eight league meetings between the two managers, Klopp has managed three wins and a draw despite, on paper at least, having inferior players but ones who have the intensity to test a opponent's technique and the speed to punish them if it isn't up to scratch.

Klopp is fully aware that his team can't win on points by out-passing City over 180 minutes so instead they will come out swinging on Wednesday night.

For City and Guardiola, the biggest danger is themselves and falling into a rope-a-dope trap.

Irish Independent

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