Kieran Davies relishes the prospect of a European classic.
Whether you want it or not it’s happening. Much like Brexit, one of these two teams will find themselves out of Europe by Tuesday evening with their departure a lot more abrupt than our long-drawn-out EU farewell. So, who will find themselves in that much coveted semi-final draw? With his Latin brand of stylish, passing play feeding a front line full of goals, can Pep achieve what came so naturally at Barcelona? They face a Liverpool side brimming with confidence and goals, playing Klopp’s brand of ‘heavy-metal’ football. Try to breach this team and you open yourself up to their frightening, pacey counter-attack, but this is what City must do. Three goals down from the first leg and not an away goal in sight, City face the ultimate challenge to turn this tie around. It doesn’t matter how good you think your team is, no manager would take the handicap of Pep’s plight from the Anfield leg. Confidence will not have been helped by a home defeat to local rivals Manchester United on the weekend, preventing them from clinching the Premier League title.
During the first leg, in the battle of the managers, Klopp definitely drew first blood and tactically outwitted Guardiola. Every coaching team will do their homework in preparation for a game but seemingly, the German noticed something about this City side. Playing two banks of four in the defensive third allows Pep’s talented side to get between the lines and utilise the space. Instead of playing two horizontal lines, Klopp implemented something I have not seen from this Liverpool side before. Playing narrowly, left City’s wide options available every attack, something which they duly utilised time and time again. As soon as the ball went to the wide man, Liverpool’s full back would sprint towards them, immediately closing them down. As these two defensive lines were tactically set out diagonally, this meant that if the City attacking player beat his man, there was always a covering player in support. This really blunted Pep’s side and nullified their attacking threat. The players seemed to have run out of ideas of how to deal with this, leading to them not registering a single shot on goal.
It resulted in the lamented leaky Liverpool back line looking solid and comfortable each time City attacked. Van Dijk and Lovren dealt with the attacking threat through the centre, while Robertson and Alexander-Arnold stuck to their task impeccably (the latter probably doing enough to warrant a ‘man of the match’ performance). Karius should be a lot busier in this leg you would think, but how will both managers approach the game tactically? Surely it is not in the DNA of a Klopp side to go and defend a lead. His natural instinct is to attack teams. The fact that City need goals may play perfectly into Liverpool’s hands. With a fit again Mo Salah, Mane and Firmino lining up for The Reds, attack at your own peril. If the Manchester derby is anything to go by, Liverpool will fancy their chances of capitalising on set-pieces. City looked very much susceptible against Jose’s United. Not usually an Achilles’ heel of a Guardiola side, chinks in the armour may be appearing. One thing they can expect from a Jurgen Klopp team is the high press. With City needing goals, and lots of them, the press could be integral to Liverpool’s fortunes.
Many think this tie is dead and buried but the reality of things is that it is literally half-time in this game. Of all the fans across the globe, Liverpool’s should realise how it is possible to completely turn a game on its head from this position. While they chase a sixth Champions League title in Kiev, an Istanbul style comeback is much the order of the day for Manchester City. There is no doubting that they have the firepower to do just this, although much also relies upon keeping Liverpool out too. Away goals may be the telling factor in this tie, one moment of sublime Salah brilliance could leave City needing to score five or more goals. Should these sides take each other on toe to toe, this game could really be a goal frenzy. This tie has all the makings of a classic, with two teams who score freely at will. Before the first leg, City were favourites to win the Champions League. Now they are probably third favourites in a two-horse race.
De Bruyne was largely ineffective at Anfield which was bizarre given the amount of time Liverpool were giving him on the ball. He will need to find his form as he is integral to this team, if De Bruyne plays, City play. With a fit again Sergio Aguero, Pep’s team should have more attacking threat with the Argentinian leading the line. Sterling has turned in nothing but mediocre performances against his ex-employers and Leroy Sane will have hopefully climbed out of Alexander-Arnold’s pocket in time to make the second leg. City’s full backs love nothing more than bombing forward down those flanks, as do Liverpool’s. Turning those full backs towards their own goal and getting in behind them is an obvious way to use this strategy against their opponents. Both sides seem more than capable to do this to one another, as to what decides who will do what to who, it’s all down to the application on the day.
A European night like this should be motivation enough alone, if this isn’t enough for any player, a Champions League semi-final is there dangling like a carrot on a string. It is an intriguing game in so many areas with both sides quite evenly matched. While Liverpool’s side has not cost the hundreds of millions that City’s did, they are both playing a brand of football which is begrudgingly admired by opposing fans. Two managers, both as charismatic as the other for differing reasons, using their tactical nous to outwit the other. Two teams who collectively have scored just short of two hundred goals between them this season alone. The new kids on the block of European football face the experienced master. Pupil looking to become teacher. A stadium looking to emulate the electric atmosphere of their North-West rivals. Liverpool. Manchester. Champions League football. A ménage a trois where two’s company and three’s a crowd. One contestant will be leaving the building, but who? If this game pans out as the form guide would suggest, only a European classic can decide!