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Reds dropping guard will refocus minds

Tommy Conlon


City wrong if they think they have struck a blow ahead of next season

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‘Mentally and physically it had been a punishing two-season block of high-octane effort, week after week after week.’ Photo: Peter Powell/Pool via Reuters

‘Mentally and physically it had been a punishing two-season block of high-octane effort, week after week after week.’ Photo: Peter Powell/Pool via Reuters

REUTERS

‘Mentally and physically it had been a punishing two-season block of high-octane effort, week after week after week.’ Photo: Peter Powell/Pool via Reuters

Not to say we're reading too much into it or anything, but Pep Guardiola did bother to mention it in his post-match interview all the same.

His team had given the Liverpool boys a guard of honour onto the field at the Etihad and the Liverpool boys hadn't acknowledged it. Now, the Manchester City guru wasn't making a fuss about it. In fact, he only brought it up as an example of how focused the new champs looked before the clash with his boys, the old champs, on Thursday night. It was actually a compliment.

"They were incredible focus," said the Catalan in his not quite perfect English, "I saw the guard of honour, how they walk (through it), how focus they are, not even say thank you, just focus the game, that's why they are champion of Europe and champion for the Premier League."

The team that had been dethroned just a week earlier by their guests had laid on the prescribed etiquette and the lack of "even" a thank you merely demonstrated why they were now the best. Like we say, it was a compliment, there was nothing more to it, really . . .

Which was why, added Guardiola, he was very pleased with City's 4-0 demolition job. And while he wanted to make it absolutely clear that the lack of even a "thank you" was solely down to Liverpool's professionalism, there was unfortunately some mixed messaging elsewhere in the text. Yes, he was happy with the performance and the result because it had been achieved in the face of Liverpool's "incredible focus", but at the same time he was not unaware that his opponents might not have been living like monks either, since taking the crown.

"I think," he added with the proverbial wry smile, "they drank a lot of beers in the last week!" He hastened to explain that while this may have been the case, "they arrive here without beers in their blood to play and compete against us."

Which did leave us wondering just how focused the 'Pool players could have been on the night, if they'd been on the piss for the previous week. Maybe they forgot to say thank you, not because they were so focused but because they were so unfocused.

On the other hand, Jürgen Klopp claimed pre-match that the partying had just been a 24-hour affair, give or take. He was asked if there'd been any sign of slackening. "Everything looks fine," replied the Liverpool gaffer, "we didn't celebrate for a week or whatever, we had our night, done, and since then we train again pretty fine. But, the game will give the final proof."

And the final proof suggested that he might as well have let them off the leash for the week. They could hardly have done much worse. At one point early in the second half the normally immaculate Trent Alexander-Arnold took a bizarre throw-in back towards his own goal that went straight to Gabriel Jesus. The City striker's finish was tame but Liverpool were already three down and looking for the lifeboats; they were a pale shadow of their normal vibrant selves.

Basically, they looked like a team might be expected to look after landing their club's first championship in 30 years. They'd just climbed Mount Everest. One imagines that the emotional comedown after such a high is something like a crash landing. They'd been chasing the prize for two solid years. Mentally and physically, it had been a punishing two-season block of high-octane effort, week after week after week. They fell apart on Thursday at the Etihad and it wasn't much wonder. They could barely raise a gallop. They had switched off for the previous week and suddenly they were back to reality having lost complete track of it in the wake of their historic achievement.

If, as Klopp said, they were back training within a few days, maybe they didn't get the chance to process to a conclusion the whole happy upheaval. There are long-established methods for dealing with defeats, usually involving video analysis and rigorous repair work on the training ground.

Not so for momentous triumphs, presumably because they're so scarce in general, and in this case because the club had forgotten how to win the great prize. There wasn't a manual for dealing with a first title in 30 years. He said so himself in his pre-match interview.

In hindsight, maybe this was precisely the time to do nothing except soak up the applause and bask in the warm afterglow. Let it journey through the system in its own good time. But idleness is a taboo indulgence in serious sport. The work ethic is obsessively pursued.

A winning team has no sooner lifted the trophy than they're being asked about next year. Take a week off and they're accused of resting on their laurels. It would take a brave coach to say yes, we are going to rest on our laurels for a while, the better to smell the roses.

When Manchester United were racking up the titles year after year under Alex Ferguson, the winning didn't take much out of them because they became so accustomed to dealing with it. Gary Neville was one of them and on commentary last Thursday he joked about players going "on the lash" after the work is done. Even his United team switched off when there was nothing left to play for.

"We're entitled to a night off," he pleaded, and he meant a night off from competing when in theory they're supposed to be competing for the points on offer. Every season is a marathon, the team that finishes top has been ultra professional; they should have permission to be unprofessional as the season peters out. It doesn't matter.

Liverpool's dishevelled performance on Thursday won't matter a jot either when the new campaign begins this autumn. "Next season starts today," stated Raheem Sterling post-match. City had wanted to "make a point", he said. Sterling's gifted young team-mate, Phil Foden, joined the chorus too. "Congratulations to Liverpool for this year but we definitely showed (we're) ready for next season," he tweeted. Fine, you'd expect that from wounded ex-champions.

But it is wishful thinking if they believe they've lain down a marker for 2020/'21. They were highly motivated, their opponents were just trying to get through it. Liverpool were a shell of themselves; they'd evidently hit the wall after crossing the line.

And if anything, having sleepwalked through this encounter with their principal rivals, they will be wide awake for the next rendezvous.

It will make for a battle royal then, and for a fascinating race in general between the two front-runners throughout the season.

But that's for another day. In the meantime, City are gunning for the European Cup. If they land it, they could do worse than join the Liverpool lads for a night on the tiles, or maybe a week, with mutual guards of honour all round.

Sunday Indo Sport