As Manchester City look to clinch the title at home to Manchester United today, a little perspective on their harrowing experience at Anfield might be in order.
The champions-elect haven’t become a bad team on the back of one bad night at the office. (And, worryingly for football in England as a whole, what was an even worse one on their way into work). But what Liverpool’s 3-0 victory did confirm is that Pep Guardiola’s team are still a work in progress, fabulous but flawed.
Attack as the best form of defence is an admirable philosophy but it takes a team containing at least a few truly exceptional players to ensure adequate compensation if the rearguard is anything less than watertight.
The 1970 World Cup-winning Brazilians, who can lay legitimate claim to being the greatest football team the world has ever seen, invariably gave vibrant expression to their belief that it didn’t matter how many goals the opposition scored since they always knew they could score one more. At least.
But the equally adventurous Brazil team of 1982 ended up falling on the wrong side of the risk-reward divide, their frailties at the back ruthlessly punished by Italy’s goal-poacher supreme Paolo Rossi.
And that despite the presence in the cobalt blue and canary yellow ranks in Spain of such luminous talents as Zico, Socrates and Falcao.
Wonderful players, yes, but just not quite as stellar as Gerson, Tostao, goal-a-game Jairzinho and, of course, the incomparable Pele.
In more recent times, Guardiola’s own Barcelona team, which I was fortunate to witness in the flesh ritually disembowelling Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final, could easily afford to ship a blow or two at the back.
As, indeed, they did on that day in Wembley when Wayne Rooney equalised Pedro’s opener. But it was really no more than a minor irritant for Barca because they could always rely on Xavi, Iniesta and, of course, Messi, a holy trinity playing at the peak of their powers, to ensure the Catalans’ near total dominance of the football would be converted into more than enough chances and goals to get the job done in style.
As their runaway title campaign attests, Pep’s City are on the same track but not yet in the same league.
Kevin De Bruyne is a case in point. The Belgian has probably been the most complete performer in the Premier League this season, hugely influential for City with his drive, visionary passing and shooting power, all underpinned by an acute footballing intelligence.
But on Wednesday night at Anfield, De Bruyne was reduced to huffing and puffing, largely by the tenacity with which the swarming Red shirts — and in particular, James Milner — hunted him down, fiercely determined not to give him the time to get his head up and dictate the play. On this night, it was a case of the good pro trumping the class act.
Here in microcosm was a key difference between the two sides: All around the pitch, Liverpool were more up for the battle than City and, having shaken the visitors out of their collective stride, Salah, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Mane were able to capitalise on their opponents’ vulnerability when finding themselves in the unaccustomed position of being put on the defensive. Maybe, after all, there’s something too in this idea about greatness being a component of a club’s DNA and, not only that, but an X-factor which can be harnessed on special occasions.
Common sense suggests that, on a football pitch, history shouldn’t really have any bearing on the present but as the red-hot drama unfolded on Wednesday night, it was hard to dismiss the notion that the living tradition of all those storied European nights at Anfield served to demoralise City as much as it inspired Liverpool. For the visitors, this was a test of big game know-how, and they failed it miserably.
In domestic competition, Liverpool trail Man City by 18 points while, in Spain, Real Madrid are 13 behind leaders Barcelona. Yet, like the Merseysiders, Real too are excelling in the Champions League, having put upstarts PSG firmly in their place before Ronaldo took centre-stage this week with that goal for the ages as they saw off Juve.
(Though, on the day that’s in it, I feel duty-bound to confess I thought Wayne Rooney’s overhead kick in the derby was better).
In Manchester, as in Paris, it seems there are limits to what the nouveau riche can hope to achieve, at least in the short-term. The old order might be changing, but not rapidly.
All that said, City aren’t out of Europe yet although, even if they play at their sensational best in the second leg and get back in the tie with a couple of goals, it’s hard to see them avoiding the concession of a crucial away goal, particularly if Mo Salah is fit to play.
The first leg also underlined how much City need their own striker supreme, Sergio Aguero. It all means City bring
heavier baggage into today’s Manchester derby than many would have imagined would be the case at the start of the week. You could hardly call it a title decider, since the title has been decided a long time ago, but a game which was already freighted with significance — at stake, a shot at glory combined with the bragging rights of sealing the deal against their local rivals — has now taken on added dimensions of pressure for the champions in waiting.
After Anfield, it’s a new and different test of nerve and character for City.