Sunday Times

Why Pep is scared of Reds at An­field

Pro­lific front three gives City’s Guardi­ola the hee­bie jee­bies

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● Among the more il­lu­mi­nat­ing parts of Manch­ester City’s re­cently re­leased, fly-on­the-wall doc­u­men­tary was Pep Guardi­ola dis­cussing his fears about play­ing Liver­pool, and in par­tic­u­lar their pro­lific front three.

“They scare me,” Guardi­ola told two mem­bers of his tech­ni­cal staff as he paced a locker room in­side the sta­dium of Liver­pool’s Mersey­side neigh­bour, Ever­ton.

And with good rea­son.

City made two trips to An­field last sea­son, both un­com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ences.

In Jan­uary a 4-3 de­feat ended the quest to be­come the sec­ond “In­vin­ci­bles” of the English Premier League af­ter 22 games un­beaten. City con­ceded three goals in a nine­minute span when Guardi­ola’s play­ers looked rat­tled for the first time all sea­son.

A 3-0 de­feat in the Cham­pi­ons League came in April, a first-leg quar­ter­fi­nal drub­bing that vir­tu­ally ended City’s chances of win­ning the big­gest prize in Euro­pean soc­cer for the first time. That night be­gan with Liver­pool fans throw­ing beer cans and bot­tles at City’s team bus. It didn’t get any bet­ter on the field.

The ar­chi­tects be­hind those two big wins for Liver­pool were Sa­dio Mane, Mo­hamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, a front three of pace and per­pet­ual move­ment who so clearly worry Guardi­ola. They scored five of Liver­pool’s seven goals, with Salah and Firmino also scor­ing in the sec­ond leg of the Cham­pi­ons League quar­ter­fi­nals that Liver­pool also won en route to the fi­nal.

So it’s not un­rea­son­able to sug­gest Salah, Firmino and Mane have been oc­cu­py­ing Guardi­ola’s thoughts this week ahead of his team’s lat­est visit to Liver­pool and their sto­ried, at­mo­spheric sta­dium — where City have not won since 2003.

To­day’s match is be­tween the top two teams in the Premier League, tied with 19 points and both un­beaten af­ter seven games. Liver­pool fin­ished 25 points be­hind first­place City last sea­son, but look to be the cham­pi­ons’ big­gest ti­tle ri­vals this time af­ter a net spend of about $200m (about R3bn) in the off-sea­son.

What will be telling this week­end is if Guardi­ola has learned from those An­field de­feats of last sea­son and ad­justs his tac­tics. He is well known for his un­wa­ver­ing be­lief in a pos­ses­sion-based, at­tack-minded ap­proach that comes with ob­vi­ous risks, given that it in­volves his goal­keeper and de­fend­ers play­ing the ball out from the back and also two play­mak­ers in a mid­field three.

That plays into Liver­pool’s hands — Jur­gen Klopp’s high-en­ergy game plan of­ten re­lies on press­ing from the front and then coun­ter­at­tack­ing at pace — and Guardi­ola knows it. Klopp has won seven of his 14 meet­ings with Guardi­ola over the years, los­ing only once in six while both have been in English foot­ball.

Guardi­ola tried some­thing dif­fer­ent in April, play­ing an ex­tra mid­fielder in Ilkay Gun­do­gan in­stead of a winger, Ra­heem Ster­ling, in a bid to ex­ert more con­trol. By the time Gun­do­gan trudged off af­ter 57 min­utes to be re­placed by Ster­ling, City were trail­ing 3-0 and the ex­per­i­ment had failed.

Will he rein in his full­backs this time? Leave out one of his play­mak­ers and play a more de­fen­sive cen­tre mid­field to pro­tect the de­fence? It goes against Guardi­ola’s phi­los­o­phy but he re­alises some­thing has to change.

Guardi­ola also ac­knowl­edged City got too “in­volved in the en­vi­ron­ment” at An­field last sea­son, and that was borne out in Liver­pool scor­ing three goals in nine min­utes in the first game and three goals in 19 min­utes in the sec­ond. City, in essence, folded af­ter con­ced­ing and took too long to re­cover.

It makes the first goal so cru­cial to­day. Liver­pool ver­sus Man City al­most al­ways lives up to its billing as one of the most en­ter­tain­ing matches on the English cal­en­dar, es­pe­cially now that Klopp and Guardi­ola are in the dugouts.

City have a score to set­tle af­ter the An­field hu­mil­i­a­tions. Liver­pool want to make an­other early sea­son state­ment that it is a gen­uine chal­lenger for a first ti­tle since 1990.

And although Klopp’s men are stut­ter­ing for the first time this sea­son — Wed­nes­day’s last-gasp de­feat by Napoli was their third match in suc­ces­sion with­out a vic­tory, Guardi­ola said he be­lieved in his play­ers despite the daunt­ing task ahead of them.

“I know how they fight,” he said. “Go to An­field, win, lose, what­ever. It’s a long time ago Man City were able to win at An­field. What I want to see is the team alive, and we are alive.”

Mean­while, Chelsea, in third place, will at­tempt to stay on the coat-tails of the top two away at Southamp­ton.

Eden Haz­ard has scored six goals in his past five Premier League games but his form has papered over the cracks at Stam­ford Bridge, with Olivier Giroud look­ing tooth­less in front of goal and Al­varo Mo­rata also en­dur­ing a goal drought un­til Thurs­day’s 1-0 Europa League win over Vidi.

Coach Mau­r­izio Sarri, who has talked up Haz­ard as one of the best play­ers in the world, is nev­er­the­less dan­ger­ously re­liant on the Bel­gian play­maker, who scored Chelsea’s goal against Liver­pool in last week’s 1-1 draw.

To­day the Blues visit strug­gling Southamp­ton lifted by their mid­week League Cup vic­tory on penal­ties against Ever­ton, with French World Cup win­ner Giroud look­ing to break his duck this sea­son. — stl­to­ and AFP

I know how they fight

Pep Guardi­ola

Man City man­ager on Liver­pool

 ?? Pic­tures: Getty Im­ages and Reuters ?? On show at An­field, from left, Liver­pool for­ward Sa­dio Mane, City’s goal­keeper Eder­son and striker Ser­gio Aguero, and Liver­pool keeper Alis­son.
Pic­tures: Getty Im­ages and Reuters On show at An­field, from left, Liver­pool for­ward Sa­dio Mane, City’s goal­keeper Eder­son and striker Ser­gio Aguero, and Liver­pool keeper Alis­son.
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