Liverpool-Man City, final Klopp-Pep match, delivers EPL title race for the ages

By | March 10, 2024

It was chaotic. Stressful. Less tactical, more heavy metal. Liverpool vs. Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp vs. Pep Guardiola, perhaps the Last Dance, were compelling. It had just about everything from City panic to rattling messagesby basketball-like goals to bickering – everything but a winner.

And so it delivered a Premier League title race for the ages.

It ended Liverpool 1, Man City 1 – and Arsenal 64, Liverpool 64, Man City 63, with ten extremely attractive games to go.

And in every way it was appropriate.

This, Pep versus Klopp, the Messi versus Ronaldo of managerial rivalries, has defined today’s Premier League. It delivered the drama, shaped the tactics and took the entire EPL from competitive but flawed to the best in its class. It pushed and sculpted both visionary leaders. Guardiola is “the excellent manager of my life,” Klopp said this week. Klopp is “the best rival I have ever had in my life,” Guardiola said this winter. “His teams have helped me become a better manager.”

‘Helped’ is a thing of the past, because Klopp will be leaving soon. He announced in January that he would step down at the end of the season. He leaves without concrete plans for the future, only with the promise that he will never coach any English club other than Liverpool.

Sunday therefore felt like the end of an era, perhaps the last meeting between these two masterminds. It teased finality. Screenwriters begged for a decisive conclusion.

Instead, they got 100 minutes of back and forth – and, at the final whistle, claps, hugs, mutual respect and bittersweet satisfaction.

“They are an incredible team,” Guardiola said afterwards.

On paper, he and Man City had the firepower; but in the end they were happy to escape with a point.

They controlled the first fifteen minutes of the match and should have continued. They finally did just that midway through the first half, with a bit of brilliance off the practice court and a pick play stolen from the NBA.

On Saturday they had rehearsed a set-piece routine rooted in conceptual deception. On Sunday they executed it with precision. Kevin De Bruyne stood over a right corner. “When you think about a ball outswinging, you think it’s going to land close to the penalty area,” Man City centre-back John Stones explained. Instead, City’s Nathan Aké set a subtle screen on the Liverpool defender near the post; Stones slipped into an empty space; De Bruyne fired a low ball into that space and Stones tapped it with his foot past Liverpool keeper Caoimhin Kelleher.

But as a gray Anfield evening darkened, City lost the control they are so used to.

For more than a decade, Klopp versus Pep has been a stylistic clash, a tug-of-war between chaos and control. And their final duel veered towards chaos. Liverpool, always under-resourced in the rivalry and now undermanned, depleted by injuries, took on the City beast. The revamped midfield and heroic, boyish reserves won the game in classic Klopp fashion.

They put the pressure on City and put the champions back in an increasingly claustrophobic defensive half. At half-time and full-time they finished with more passes and more possession – and more passion.

They equalized after 50 minutes. Ederson aggravated Aké’s mistake, a back pass that was not hit enough. The City goalkeeper took out Darwin Nuñez and conceded a penalty, which Alexis Mac Allister converted.

From there the Reds rose. Luis Diaz should perhaps have scored twice. Liverpool’s defenders pounced on every line-skipping pass from City. Their superiority was semi-astonishing.

“I saw so many sensational performances today,” Klopp said after the match. “I don’t know where to start.”

The city has now turned sour. De Bruyne and Guardiola fell out when the latter came on for the former after 68 minutes. On the field, frustration turned to panic. Defenders cut the slack. It wasn’t until the 75th minute that City finally enjoyed an extended period of possession in the second half.

They were upset because Liverpool had upset them. They were still dangerous and Jeremy Doku rattled Liverpool’s goal frame with two minutes plus stoppage time remaining. But they “couldn’t find a rhythm, couldn’t find the pockets … which we’re used to doing,” Stones said.

So they happily settled for a draw and a foothold in this unprecedented title race.

Liverpool's manager Jurgen Klopp, left, embraces Manchester City's head coach Pep Guardiola after the English Premier League football match between Liverpool and Manchester City, at Anfield Stadium in Liverpool, England, Sunday, March 10, 2024. The match ended 1-1.  (AP Photo/Jon Super)

The Premier League is no stranger to exciting stretch runs. Klopp’s Liverpool and Pep’s City have gone to the wire twice, separated by one point. But rarely done three teams battled it out. And never before have the three teams been so good.

Klopp’s Liverpool and City’s Guardiola already account for the four highest points totals in Premier League history. They won’t quite reach those heights in 2024, but they and Arsenal are all on an 85+ point pace. All three would be on course to win the league in 11 of the Prem’s 31 seasons; and a dozen other 21st century champions would be within their reach.

And all three are accelerating. Neither Arsenal nor City have lost a league match since December. Liverpool have lost only once since September: to Arsenal last month.

City came in on Sunday as betting favourites. But for the first time since Guardiola’s first season, they have neither the best goal difference nor the best expected goal difference in England. They are excellent, but imperfect and vulnerable, as Aston Villa showed in December, as Liverpool proved again on Sunday.

They enter the March international break in unknown territory: third place.

They will emerge from this facing another titanic battle on March 31 against Arsenal and Guardiola’s former understudy, Mikel Arteta, who outwitted the great in October.

For the first time since Guardiola’s masterful run began – for the first time since the first of five titles in six years – he and City have two legitimate challengers, the “best rival” and the protégé.

And they have ten spring weekends to write a final chapter – or perhaps, in Arsenal’s case, the first of many.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *