Sunday 19 August 2018

Brian Kerr: Liverpool can stake case as City's most likely challengers

Two great tactical brains go head to head with both striving to find perfect balance between attack and defence

Liverpool’s Mo Salah has proven his worth at Anfield. Photo: Getty
Liverpool’s Mo Salah has proven his worth at Anfield. Photo: Getty

Brian Kerr

Thankfully a rivalry awaits us this weekend when all should be enthralled by what to expect on the pitch during the 90 minutes, rather than off the pitch following it.

Unlike certain other managers, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have a mutual respect for each other, yet away from the flashing white-toothed grins displayed for the public, both men will still do what they have to do to get three points from this compelling fixture.

The pair have rarely descended towards the depths of often playground nastiness happening elsewhere, believing that it is more effective to let the ball do some of the talking for them.

Indeed, their only strong disagreement of recent times was a pedantic argument about the timing of Manchester City's coronation as Premier League champions this season; Klopp reckoned the title would be won by January.

Guardiola dismissed this out of hand. He's right, of course. But they are ridiculously far ahead.

The Liverpool boss issued that declaration as far back as late October, when City had completed a 28-point haul from a possible 30 by claiming an eighth successive win against West Bromwich Albion.

At that stage, they were only five points ahead but even Klopp could sense that the momentum was irrepressible. And, for the most part, that is how it has remained.

As Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte continue to bicker like two catty pensioners trading insults across the back garden wall, the sound of their furies seems to broadcast their increasing frustration in the slipstream of City's supremacy.

Both men seem insecure at the moment, probably because their position as manager is hardly guaranteed, given what we know about Jose's itchy feet and Roman Abramovich's even itchier trigger finger.

That uncertainty could mean that, of the leading chasers, Liverpool could perhaps manoeuvre themselves into a position to become the best-placed outfit to challenge the authority of this season's scintillating standard-bearers.

Liverpool were once, of course, the side that stamped their authority upon the English game and, when Guardiola was laughing off Klopp's title prediction, the Spaniard added that only when his club won titles, "like Liverpool with their history", could they lay any claims to greatness.

Sadly, Liverpool's recent past has traced how their former status has slowly but surely slipped from their grasp.

"You have to win," Pep said. "It is nice to have good performances but you have to lift the titles. Without them it is not enough."

Liverpool's reputation, like the Liver Birds and the Cavern Club, is a relic of the past.

Manchester United once waited 26 years to bridge a league title drought; Liverpool are at 28 and counting.

With every passing season, their Champions League win in 2005 stands apart in isolation, splendid though that night in Istanbul certainly was. But they haven't won anything of substance since, bar a League Cup.

This month, Philippe Coutinho may have been swayed by his heart and his wallet when he pitched up at Camp Nou but he would also have found it impossible to ignore the allure of the trophy haul that may await.

In the past decade alone, Barcelona have landed six La Liga titles, five Spanish Cups and three European Cups. They'd earn you a few more quid in the pawn shop compared to a League Cup medal.

Liverpool have promised much, firstly under Brendan Rodgers, yet delivered little enough. They have always been free-scoring but somehow haven't got the job done.

Even this season, aside from PSG (58) and Manchester City (64), Liverpool (50) have scored more goals than any other club in Europe's top five leagues, so the anticipation amongst football fans will be that this could be a classical shoot-out between two teams devoted to attack.

In September, the contest between this pair was bubbling up into a classic encounter until Sadio Mané's dismissal in the 37th minute for his high-footed challenge that almost decapitated Ederson.

Before and after Sergio Aguero's lead goal, Liverpool had been threatening to take the game to City and, presuming they can keep everyone on the field, it will be interesting to see them going at each other at full tilt with possibly the best attacking trios in world football.

Both managers have been forced into respecting the consistent intensity of the Premier League as indicated by frequent rotation and changes for cup games.

Klopp has received steady criticism for his policy, and it became ferocious after Everton snatched a late point in the derby due to Roberto Firmino and Coutinho not starting. But he was playing a longer game.

The contrast between this period last season and now - for both teams - is startling.

Last year, Liverpool played 12 matches between January and February but won just two, losing six (three in the league) and drawing four.

Between December 2 and January 5 this season, they have won seven and drawn three, so the manager's ability to relent on the gegenpressing, allowing his rotating players to expend less energy by taking the sting out of games occasionally, is clearly benefiting them.

They are more disciplined and the full-backs are being much more responsible. And yet they still throw in a defensive implosion almost every month - the most recent the 3-3 draw against Arsenal.

Nevertheless, 17 matches unbeaten would suggest a team in form with a good balance but there remains a defensive instability. Will Virgil van Dijk alone provide the presence and leadership to solve all that?

For their part, City's remarkable strides can also be viewed through the prism of how they have managed to negotiate the fixture congestion in December and January, something that he, as well as Klopp, would never have encountered before.

They lost four games in December and January last season but of their 12 games this time around, they have won 10, drawn one and lost only a dead rubber to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League.

Throughout last season, they fell behind in 18 games and won just four - this season, so far, they have only conceded the lead eight times but yet have still come back to win six and draw one, the phenomenal run of late goals a sign of their fitness, confidence and relentless attacking.

Pep has managed to achieve in double-quick time what Klopp aspires to - the chief difference has been the vast availability of ready cash, the one resource denied Liverpool who, as we have again seen, must continue to sell their most prized assets.

Klopp arrived from a culture where he was allowed the time and patience to passionately pursue his ambition to find diamonds in the rough and develop their talents; you can even see that now in his enthusiasm for young players like Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez.

But patience and time are rare resources in a Premier League where finance is king.

Although Pep has had to adapt to English conditions, he has never been forced to rein in his ability to splash the cash; his gift is to acquire ready-made diamonds, aligned to those he inherits, and shine them to even greater polished perfection, unstymied by a lack of cash-flow.

Hence, he spent lavishly on full-backs and a goalkeeper while Klopp's superiors failed to get their main target until now; the results are self-evident.

City are much tighter at the back and their attack even more devastating; Liverpool remain vulnerable, undermining their free-flowing formation up front.

It is difficult to see how that gap can be breached as City will be expected to raise their game still further next season.

Everyone is working out the conundrum of how to beat them but, in 33 matches, only Crystal Palace and Wolves have prevented them from scoring this season and we have seen vastly contrasting efforts, few of them successful.

Liverpool must find the balance between Newcastle's limited attempt at home, when they barely pushed anyone into the opposite half, and the enterprising Bristol City effort in midweek, when they pressed high and tried to upset Pep's team at the back, before funnelling back quickly to close down the avenues towards goal. It nearly worked.

But, just like Pep's great Barcelona side which peaked in 2011 in the Champions League final, while it may be easy to identify flaws in a side small of stature, seemingly vulnerable in defensive flanks and at set-pieces, it is much more difficult to exploit them.

This team is approaching that level of greatness and perhaps only a sustained assault by Europe's best in the latter rounds of the Champions League will truly test their mettle.

They remain wonderful to watch and witnessing the bravery of their style thriving on an English stage where, until now, physicality, strength and set-pieces have often dominated, has been game-changing.

Liverpool are lamenting the loss of one of the so-called 'Fab Four' but when they played together the side was often too exposed; the problem was achieving the balance between attack and defence.

The loss of Coutinho may have been over-played and Liverpool have got great value for the player but they must use it wisely.

Mo Salah has been a more valuable player with his goals, Firmino has become a much more effective centre-forward in the modern mould and, although muted of late, Mané's form has been impressive.

Just as Pep has improved the balance in his team, Klopp hasn't got there yet and his efforts to speed up the transfer of Naby Keita from Leipzig reflects his concern at midfield flaws.

If Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG and the Manchester clubs are in tier one of the money league, Liverpool remain hampered in the second tier.

Until that gap is breached, if ever, Klopp must continue to cut his cloth to suit his measure.

Both these sides normally have the puzzle of trying to break a defensive team down and it suits them when the opposition come out and play.

So tomorrow you could say City and Liverpool are facing their ideal opposition.

But for Klopp's team, while the task of keeping Leroy Sane, Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling quiet is taxing, keeping Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva ineffective for a full game is almost impossible.

That is why the roles of his midfield men, Emre Can, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum, will be crucial to the outcome. They must be vigilant, disciplined and protective of the back four.

If they can achieve the balance, they have the weapons to hurt any defence; even if City have vastly improved, they remain prone to mistakes and the well-rested Salah and Mané will be asked to lead that assault.

Liverpool haven't lost at home to City in 15 years - last year's 1-0 win their 10th in a sequence also including four draws - but winning tomorrow could be their most significant statement yet.

It promises to be a thrilling ride in which we may discover more about City's excellence but also, one hopes, signs that Liverpool might be the best-placed to launch a sustained challenge in the future.

Irish Independent

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