The Blues have a dire record at Anfield and came unstuck there in dramatic circumstances this season but they will be confident of overcoming the Reds
As proof of how far Manchester City have come since Pep Guardiola was appointed as manager, the Blues were up there with Barcelona and Real Madrid in terms of teams to be avoided heading into Friday’s Champions League quarter-final draw.
Andriy Shevchenko, the legendary Ukraine striker and UEFA’s 2018 final ambassador, named City in the same breath as the two Spanish giants shortly after 12:00 CET in Nyon. That in itself is telling; Barca have Lionel Messi, and Real Madrid are Real Madrid but, all of a sudden, City hold the same fear factor in European competition.
Indeed, Roma sporting director Monchi had said City were the team to avoid, while plenty of Barcelona fans on Twitter had said that the Blues were the team they most feared.
It’s fair to say that hardly anybody on the continent wanted to face Guardiola’s men. Luckily for them, they won’t have to. Liverpool will.
City themselves would not have relished a clash with Barca or Madrid but there is something about Liverpool which, in some ways, makes them the trickiest possible opponents of all.
In contrast to many European sides, the Reds, cock-sure as ever, will probably fancy their chances. After all, they are the only team to have beaten City in the Premier League this season, and they play the kind of football which many believe is the best way to combat Guardiola’s intricate gameplan.
Jurgen Klopp himself has embodied his side’s bullishness, saying: “I don’t think they thought before that the best draw they could have got is Liverpool. That’s a sign for us and how strong we can be.”
They will also argue that their 5-0 defeat at the Etihad Stadium back in September was heavily affected by Sadio Mane’s first-half red card. Guardiola himself admits that despite the Blues’ 1-0 lead, the game was evenly balanced up until the Reds winger was sent off. That said, if you cave in with 10-men and concede a further four goals in a Champions League knock-out game, you’re probably not going to advance.
Liverpool may argue that they would have got themselves back into the league game at the Etihad with 11 men, but that is for them to prove next month.
It was a similar story for City on Merseyside. For 10 minutes after John Stones misjudged a through-ball, which allowed Roberto Firmino in to make it 2-1, the Blues looked ragged for the first time since their worst performances last season.
They simply could not play it out from the back, as they are committed to doing, and they conceded three goals which would put them in serious danger even across a two-legged tie. They recovered after that and nearly, improbably, rescued a remarkable 4-4 draw. But, ultimately, they did not; it was a bridge too far.
Guardiola knows all about these fine margins and earlier in March he discussed how things can quickly get away from you in Europe: “If what happened in Wigan happens in the Champions League – with the red card for Fabian Delph after 44 minutes – you don’t win the Champions League.
“With the action from Oleksandr Zinchenko in the first half on Victor Moses [a foul against Chelsea on Sunday], it was an orange but it could be yellow, could be red, and if it is red you are out of the Champions League. Sometimes in the Champions League it’s not about how you play.”
City’s defeat in January also serves as proof that no matter how far they have come under Guardiola – and they have made huge strides – they remain vulnerable at Anfield.
In the Premier League era, they have lost 15 of 21 games away at Liverpool. City have won there just twice since 1981, with the most recent of those victories coming in 2003.
City are certainly the best club in England, if not in Europe, and they have won at Stamford Bridge, the San Paolo, Old Trafford and the Emirates Stadium this season alone, but they still came away from Liverpool empty-handed.
Crucially, however, the first leg is at Anfield. The famous stadium has often proved to be a crucial factor in the biggest ties, with their opposition simply overwhelmed by the noise from the Kop. Given how City fared in that second half in January, you cannot say that they are yet immune to that kind of atmosphere, coupled with the kind of pressure the Liverpool players themselves can apply.
If City learn from their mistakes that day, if they can keep their heads in the face of all that noise and all that pressure, they will head back to Manchester with the tie in their hands. After all, even another 4-3 defeat would put them in the driving seat.
The Blues would be wise to remember that they have played scintillating football against all manner of tricky opponents this season, and that they are, despite that Anfield glitch, the best side in the Premier League.
In fact, that status can be confirmed between the two games with Liverpool; if they beat Manchester United just days before the Reds rock up at the Etihad Stadium there is a good chance they will be crowned champions of England. Never mind the Anfield effect, what a fillip that would be for City ahead of the second leg!
That is why are surely in for two great games, and while it is probably not the clash that City fans, perhaps even players and staff, wanted, it is one that they can win.