by Joe Butterfield
The Manchester City team steps out onto the pitch for their Champions League Quarter-Final away leg. The stadium roars as the opposition fans greet their team and abusive shouts are hurled towards the Blues from nearby fans. Flags are waving in the main stand as a few flares light up, covering half of the pitch in coloured smoke. As the Champions League dies down, the home fans break into a choreographed song which precedes kick off. The stadium erupts once more as the home team kicks off. Boos and whistles greet every Manchester City player’s touch of the ball and every tackle which dispossesses them is celebrated as a goal would be.
Who are Manchester City’s opposition?
If you answered either Napoli, Real Madrid, Dortmund, Bayern, PSG, Barcelona, Juventus, Roma, Basel, Shakhtar, Feyenoord, Ajax, Lyon, Schalke, Legia Warsaw, OIympiakos, Inter, AC Milan, Atletico Madrid or Celtic, you’d have been well within your rights to do so as each of these teams has employed this tactic in recent memory, with many more teams besides. Alas, it is neither of those teams which City has drawn in the last eight of the Champions League. It is, in fact, Liverpool.
As soon as the two heated balls were picked out of the pot together and the two remaining English teams in the competition were pitted against one another, social media exploded as both the Merseyside and Mancunian fanbases let out a collective groan of “oh no, not them”. After all, Jurgen Klopp has proven to be Pep’s kryptonite, his high press and relentless attacking causing Guardiola’s teams more problems than most. Meanwhile Liverpool are faced with the prospect of the team which is breaking Premier League records having spent half the season barely in second gear, a team which gave them a 5-0 slapping at the start of the season (oh but we’ll get to that). Despite the high quality of the opposition which remained in the competition, I think most of both sets of fans would have taken almost any other draw than the one they were given.
After an initial sense of dread, a decent number of Liverpool fans quickly decided that the tie had already been decided. Liverpool have one secret weapon, something which no other team in the world possesses. Not Mohamed Salah, not Roberto Firmino, not Sadio Mané. No, this is something truly exclusive to Liverpool Football Club. Nobody else can possibly hope to match the red half of Merseyside when it comes down to this one crucial, fundamental factor; atmosphere.
A lot is made of Anfield’s ‘famous European nights’ and after a 2005 Champions League Semi-Final tie with Chelsea it took on a whole new meaning. The stadium was rocking and Liverpool got the crucial result they needed in order to make it to the Champions League final, a final they would go on to win. On that day, the atmosphere was almost certainly a factor and many may consider it a decisive one (John Terry himself did say that it affected the players), however I personally believe there are just too many factors involved in a football match for an atmosphere to be considered the most important one.
So let’s have a look at Liverpool’s ‘famous European nights’ in recent years. Just how effective has it been for them?
This season, the Kop terrified Sevilla, a team a lot of Liverpool fans have taken great joy in mocking Manchester United for going out in the Round of 16 to, into getting a 2-2 draw. Back in 2015/16, the Anfield faithful absolutely petrified the giants of Sion and Rubin Kazan into 1-1 draws. In 2014/15, Merseyside’s ‘match-deciding crowd’ guided their team to a 3-0 defeat to Real Madrid and a 1-1 draw with Basel, a draw which proved costly as it crashed them out of the Champions League altogether and down into the Europa League.
This is, of course, an incredibly selective bunch of results and there are some impressive victories thrown in there too, mostly notably against Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League campaign which saw them reach the final. However if the atmosphere at Anfield is as important as many would claim it is, the selected results may well not have happened. Many would argue that there were other factors involved in those poor results, though to do so would prove my point that atmosphere is not as important as many would like you to think.
So, back to the upcoming game against Manchester City. I’m sure many readers will be well aware by now of the post which is so perfectly meme-worthy it’s difficult to believe that it wasn’t just made up by the guy who runs the RAWK Meltdown Twitter page. The post basically highlights just exactly what Manchester City players are in for and explains, in hilarious detail, just how they intend to frighten the pants off of Manchester City.
“Banners and bangers”. “Pints and pyro”. “Scare em back to Mancland with their tails between their legs”. The perfect separated bold line professing that Liverpool have what money simply cannot buy for maximum effect. It’s the most cringeworthy thing related to Liverpool Football Club since Brendan Rodgers.
All joking aside, this atmosphere is not exclusive to Liverpool. As my opening couple of paragraphs rather laboriously pointed out, there are dozens of European clubs where this level of atmosphere is fairly normal. Manchester City have been involved in European competition consistently for the last eight years – something which cannot be said for Liverpool – and have faced many different atmospheres in that time. It’s not new to them, it’s not even going to be the most intimidating atmosphere they’ve faced this season as Pep’s men went to the San Paolo stadium earlier this season. They won that game in one of their most convincing displays of the season, all whilst the opposition fans shouted at them from the stands very loudly and booed a lot when they had the ball.
It’s true that not many English teams do full stand tifos and flares on European nights, but the phenomenon of banners, flags and booing opposition players is something which literally every club in the country does.
Woe betide any Manchester City fan who points this out, however, as Liverpool fans have been taking any contention that Anfield is the holy grail of football rather personally. All those who dare to suggest that Manchester City’s players won’t be frozen in fear when they hear 50,000 scousers sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and see a few flags waving in The Kop are pounced upon by numerous fans.
“I can’t believe you’re mocking the way our fanbase chooses to support our club”, say the fans who are actively encouraging bangers and flares to greet a team coach, things which quite clearly endanger other fans around them.
“You’re having the season of a lifetime, let us have this, you don’t need to rain on our parade”, say the fans who have spent the last decade retweeting Emptihad jokes and calling City a plastic club with no history.
Manchester City fans aren’t doing this to directly insult Liverpool fans, nor to even really actually mock the atmosphere itself. When it’s at its best, rare as that is, Anfield is legitimately a stadium unlike no other in England (though it’s worth noting that it is still suffering from the modern phenomenon of a dwindling atmosphere in your average home game, as many regulars at Anfield would attest to). What Blues fan are really mocking is the ridiculous, over-the-top eulogising of the atmosphere and the hyperbole surrounding it, which isn’t just coming from Liverpool fans but also various journalists and sections of the media.
At the end of the day, this match will be won on the pitch – not on it. Outside of the white line is where the fans do battle with one another, inside it is where the players do and that victory is the only one which really matters. The aggregate score between the two games is 8-4 in Manchester City’s favour, Pep’s men have no reason to believe they’re the underdog here. There’s an 18 point gap between the two teams for a very good reason. No matter how much Mohamed Salah might think that City aren’t actually the best team in the league, there’s mathematical evidence which disagrees with that assessment.
Of course, history has since been rewritten regarding their meeting at the Etihad and, if it weren’t for Sadio Mané’s red card which he cruelly received for karate kicking a goalkeeper in the face, Liverpool may well have overcome the 1-0 deficit they already found themselves in, having dominated the game up until that point. The perception of the game at Anfield has also been somewhat skewed, no doubt in part to it being Manchester City’s one and only league defeat of the season. It wasn’t a ten-minute blip which saw the Reds capitalise on big defensive errors (which have mercifully few this season so far from City) to take the game away from them, it was in fact a complete domination from the first minute til the last.
In the midst of all the fan drama, it’s difficult to remember that we’re actually going to be given two games of football as a result of this draw. Both games between these two teams so far this season have been two of the best of the whole Premier League season. If we get anything like that in the two games we’ve got coming up then we’re in for a treat of a Champions League tie. One thing’s for certain though; the outcome won’t be decided by some chanting and some flags.
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