ürgen Klopp has mixed memories of his last trip to face Manchester City at the Etihad. On the one hand there was the guard of honour from City, and the pride in being the first manager in 30 years to bring a league title to Anfield. On the other was the score, 4-0 in City’s favour, and the nagging feeling that Liverpool’s elation at being declared champions had been put into perspective within a matter of days.
“It was not an ideal time to have to play City,” says the Liverpool manager. “It was the first time we were Premier League champions and I wasn’t quite sure how to play it, how to prepare the players after we had been celebrating. I think we were not quite as focused on the game as we should have been that day and the lesson I took from it was that if you are not 100% focused in a game against City you will lose and lose big. You do not enjoy losing by that sort of score, but worse things have happened since. At least it was not the heaviest defeat of my life.”
Virgil van Dijk was still fit and playing when Liverpool conceded seven at Aston Villa last month, though the City defence has also had its off days in this most unusual of seasons, with Leicester helping themselves to five goals at the Etihad in late September.
When it comes to managerial head-to-heads, Klopp is virtually alone among established European coaches in boasting a positive record against Pep Guardiola, though it is not something he would actually go around boasting about.
“I’m happy that we don’t meet all that often,” he says. “All the games against Guardiola’s sides are incredibly difficult, very intense.
“You always face a challenge with City because of the way they play and the players they have. They have good players in every position and they can play with speed and creativity. They have a clear plan and it is hard to stop them.”
Leicester are among several sides who have proved in recent years that City can be caught by surprise, though Klopp doubts whether Liverpool will ever be allowed that latitude. This is a meeting, after all, of the present champions and the previous ones, the two sides that have left everyone else trailing in the Premier League for the past three seasons.
Klopp even goes as far as describing City at the Etihad as the most difficult game in the world of football, which may raise the odd eyebrow in Spain or Germany, though it is certainly a meeting of the two leading coaches in the world, and Klopp has seen enough of what the rest of the sport can offer to be in a good position to judge.
“You have to respect City,” he says. “You can watch opponents in advance of games then find they change everything when they are up against Liverpool. I don’t expect City to do that, they already have a successful way of playing. You have to be brave when you play them, strong enough to play your own football, and at the same time your organisation has to be near perfect to have a chance of winning.
“There are lots of teams doing well in the Premier League, whether fighting for Champions League places or going for the title. You will never hear me use the expression ‘two-horse race’. I don’t see how you can even think it on match-day eight, but since I have been in England City against Liverpool has always been a big game.”
Sergio Agüero has been ruled out for City, which may blunt their preferred attack to an extent, though Thiago Alcântara, another casualty of the feisty Merseyside derby last month, is still not ready to return for Liverpool or Spain. Injuries apart, Klopp has to make a decision over whether to bring back Roberto Firmino, who was left on the bench for the 5-0 Champions League win at Atalanta in midweek, or stick with Diogo Jota, the free-scoring summer signing from Wolves who scored a hat-trick.
With seven goals from his first 10 games for the club Jota has certainly made a confident start, though Firmino has a good record against City and as a long-standing admirer of the Brazilian’s qualities Klopp is probably not ready to phase him out just yet.
Firmino has one goal to his credit this season, hence the debate, but while as impressed as anyone else by Jota’s emergence as a goalscorer, Klopp insists the argument is not only about finishing. “Firmino has so often been the difference-maker in games without even scoring a goal,” he says. “I feel embarrassed even having to mention his qualities and what he brings to the team. If people don’t see it I’m sorry, I can’t help them.”
Liverpool could open an eight-point gap over City with a win at the Etihad, surely a significant psychological blow even at such an early stage of the season, whereas a home win would take City to within two points of their rivals with a game in hand. Everything to play for, as usual.
“These games are always interesting,” Klopp says. “Both sides always want to be at their very best. It might be early in the season but it is never too early to take a step in the right direction.”