It has been billed as the Battle of Britain – or at least England. But tonight’s showdown in Manchester is more than simply a contest to decide the best English side in Europe, or even which of two rival cities has this season’s bragging rights, writes David Shonfield.
This is a clash between two distinct schools of football, the German and the Spanish, and whoever comes out on top – Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola – will be putting down a marker for the World Cup as well as the Champions League.
Germany and Spain have become the most significant football rivals in Europe over the past decade, even if that rivalry doesn’t have the same edge as some other contests.
Spain currently have the advantage in head-to-head meetings: you have to go back 30 years for the last German victory in a competitive match. But Germany are the current world champions, having displaced Spain as top nation four years ago.
The glee was evident after Liverpool’s 3-0 win in the first leg. “Like scissors through paper,” crowed the headline in Kicker, Germany’s top football magazine, and they naturally focused on Klopp’s excellent record against Guardiola.
“No one else has managed even five wins, last Wednesday Jurgen Klopp celebrated his seventh victory.”
More, this win showed “how far the transformation to FC Klopp has progressed. Can a team come out more clearly as a Klopp team than Liverpool did against Man City on Wednesday night?”
Specifically, the decision to sell Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona has been more than vindicated, but for the Germans that win proved that Klopp has a psychological edge.
Manchester United’s startling second-half comeback at the Etihad on Saturday was further evidence: it was shellshock from the bombardment at Anfield.
And the mentality for the United game also went horribly wrong, like someone looking to celebrate their birthday the night between two university exams, as Kicker imaginatively put it.
Given how spectacularly well City have performed this season, the German reaction smacks of overconfidence.
But the statistics support their claim that Klopp is the only coach in the world who really enjoys playing against Guardiola.
When Guardiola was in charge of Bayern Munich his methods were acclaimed by pundits and players alike, but stealthily some fans began to speak of “Tiki-Taka-Tod sterben” — dying a Tiki-Taka death — and the suggestion in Germany is that something similar could be happening now.
Guardiola’s Bayern were a brilliant title-winning side that suddenly collapsed in the Champions League. The question tonight is whether he can find the tactics to turn the tables.
Klopp is by no means infallible — as Kicker points out, he lacks a convincing Plan B.
As often happens at this stage of the Champions League, Liverpool enjoyed some moments of good fortune in the first leg. German referee Felix Brych did well in an intense match, but there were some marginal calls.
Perhaps Uefa are hoping to even things up by putting a Spaniard in charge for this game, although Antonio Mateu Lahoz is hardly Guardiola’s favourite official after last season’s match against Monaco when Sergio Aguero’s penalty appeal was turned down.
Mateu Lahoz has a reputation for waving yellow cards — no fewer than 130 in 26 matches this season, and seven or more on seven occasions, including last Friday’s La Liga clash between Deportivo and Malaga.
He reached double figures in that City-Monaco game last season.
For the Spanish that will provide an additional twist to a match in which the supreme powers of their man are under scrutiny — for those Spanish, that is, who regard Guardiola as their man. Pep has nailed his colours so firmly to the independence mast that many people outside Catalonia, as well as some Catalans, would be quite happy to see him taken down a peg.
Real Madrid are always seen as representing “The Nation”, even when Barcelona have more Spanish players, and Guardiola is identified as the man who has done most damage to Madridismo. So there will be loud cheering around the Bernabeu should Liverpool come out on top.
Purely from the football point of view, questions are being asked, despite City’s impending triumph in the Premier League.
“Guardiola is one step away from falling in the competition for which he was signed,” says Marca.
For Marca — always biased towards Madrid — the biggest doubts concern Guardiola’s rotation of key players.
The Gundogan experiment in the first leg obviously didn’t work and the decision to rest players for the United game was also questioned. Barcelona paper Mundo Deportivo usually backs Guardiola in all circumstances but points out that his mentor Carles Rexach was always opposed to resting players before big games, even when they had to play three in a week.
All this criticism will evaporate should City pull off a sensational performance tonight. Neither manager has a reputation as a defensive coach. This is the football equivalent of the gunfight at the OK Corral, and even if Liverpool start with a huge advantage the outcome could depend on who blinks first.
Or perhaps on which manager is more adaptable. Kicker argues that the last six winners of this competition have achieved their goal through a pragmatic approach, adapting their tactics during the competition and during games.
“When things go wrong, then they really go wrong: Guardiola knows this from experience… It’s probably no coincidence that pragmatism has succeeded, and that’s not good news for Klopp.”
Having lost at the weekend in a sudden turnround against a Mourinho side, the question is whether Guardiola can conjure up something similar against Liverpool.
His history suggests not, and it is not in his nature to sacrifice beauty in the cause of victory. So this gunfight could well be spectacular, especially with away goals potentially decisive.
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