Guardiola's 'diving' remark shows City boss is feeling title pressure
For a few seconds on Saturday, the Premier League table was such that if Manchester City were to win next Sunday at Anfield, they would go top on goal difference. Now, if they lose, they will be nine points behind the leaders.
Another extraordinary season is unfolding; one in which the margins could remain incredibly tight or quickly open up like an apparently insurmountable chasm. All of this will have been playing on Pep Guardiola's mind as Kyle Walker scored the dramatic late winning goal against Southampton, along with the clear irritation that the champions had laboured to beat a side humiliated 9-0 the week before. And, as Walker struck, Liverpool were still losing away to Aston Villa.
All of this will still have been in the City manager's head when he returned to the home dressing room at the Etihad Stadium to hear not only that Liverpool had scored a late equaliser, but had then secured a winning goal through Sadio Mane. Mane - the player Guardiola had also been told was booked for diving. Two and two quickly equalled five.
Maybe Guardiola's subsequent comments to the cameras were not as premeditated as has been claimed. Or maybe they gave an insight into his thinking. Maybe they were simply the emotional response, blurted out, of an extremely emotional man who knows, as with last season, that Liverpool are not going away.
Any vision of dominating the Premier League is being obscured by that big red juggernaut. Bar one word, what Guardiola said to the BBC was actually non-controversial.
In response to a question about how aware he was of what was unfolding at Villa Park, he said: "Sometimes it is diving, sometimes it is this talent to score incredible goals in the last minute. It is a talent. So, when it's one time, two times, 'We were lucky, we were lucky'. What happens in the last two seasons many, many times is they have the special character to do that."
Take out that word "diving" and it is a compliment. Except Guardiola did say "diving" and, even if he did not specifically refer to Mane - as Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp pointed out - it was about the forward and, by inference, other Liverpool players.
Anfield did not need any provocation to make it febrile on Sunday, but there was Guardiola poking it with a stick and, if deliberate, with the most basic of tactic: attempting to apply pressure on the referee (and, of course, the video assistant referee) by accusing an opposition player of being a cheat. That is a big accusation and, of course, Guardiola is acutely aware that Liverpool have won their past two hard-fought home league games through late penalties earned for fouls on Mane.
Guardiola has set the agenda for the week with his comment on diving and it looks like a mistake, not least because of the way it will fire an opposition and, even more so, their fans, who do not need such provocation.
Klopp's pointed response yesterday was that of a man who knows he has the moral high ground on this occasion and the inference was clear: if a war of words develops, Guardiola only has himself to blame.
And maybe Guardiola's words would have been cynically more effective if the fixture was played at City's stadium. Instead, they will preview a game at a venue where he is yet to win and City have not won since 2003 and never under the Abu Dhabi ownership.
On four occasions, Guardiola has come away from Liverpool without a victory, and that has not happened to him at any other ground. He was a penalty kick away from winning last season, only for Riyad Mahrez to balloon the ball over the crossbar.
The winless record is a surprise and includes the 3-0 Champions League quarter-final defeat, which remains the key moment in not just heightening the rivalry between the clubs, but undoubtedly souring relations - even if there has been no bad blood between Guardiola and Klopp, who have remained remarkably civil given the stakes.
Except we now have that little fissure from Guardiola.
Rivalry is at the essence of sport and the one that has developed between City and Liverpool has the exciting edge of involving not just two great managers, but two teams who play exciting, bold, attacking and free-scoring modern football, and who are driving each other to greater heights.
Guardiola has even previously called it a "beautiful rivalry", dating back to his contests in Germany between his Bayern Munich and Klopp's Borussia Dortmund, and there is genuinely still no personal animosity between them, which is why the German was clearly surprised his rival had made the point about Mane in the first place.
It should be recalled by those overly indignant at Guardiola's behaviour that he phoned Klopp, via Lee Nobes, City's former head physiotherapist who is now at Liverpool, to congratulate him in the moments after the Champions League triumph over Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid.
But Guardiola's "diving" remark does feel significant. It does feel like the first time one of the managers has overstepped the mark and would, whatever the denial, also appear to be a sign of the pressure getting to him. Even this early in the season.
So fine are the margins, one word can show that. (© Daily Telegraph, London)