Liverpool and Manchester City couldn’t be separated on Sunday
At the point of relief after unrestrained combat, as both managers embraced and indulged in the rarity of being happy with the result in such a league-shaping fixture, there was a realisation at Anfield that the next title winners had just walked off the pitch.
There can be no surety of whether the identity of the champions will be Manchester City or Liverpool, but to watch Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp was to know even they believe it would be a shock to see another team showered with confetti at the end of the top-flight season.
Listening to them and reading between the lines crystallised this line of thinking. “Liverpool are one of the best three teams in the world,” Guardiola said. “We played with courage and personality at a good level. The draw is good.”
City had performed well for the entirety of the game while the Merseysiders only flickered to life in the second half courtesy of Mohamed Salah’s genius, yet the visiting manager was not just content but quite cheerful.
“After they went 1-0 up, Anfield changes a lot,” Guardiola further emphasised. “But we stayed in the game and we came back twice and I am incredibly satisfied. It wasn’t easy after coming back from Paris – the way we played the first half and then we are losing 1-0 and 2-1, it doesn’t give you the title, but massive satisfaction.”
The 50-year-old extracted such pleasure from the manner of the comeback because he envisions a tight, taxing finish that mirrors 2018-19 rather than the past two campaigns.
Liverpool, on the canvas at the break, led twice and saw Rodri thwart a Fabinho winner at the death but Klopp laughed that he “was not that cheeky” to want a victory when shared spoils was a more deserving outcome.
“I am overly happy that the boys showed a reaction, it was absolutely great,” the German offered. “Even with two good halves, there were games when we didn’t win against City. This was probably the worst we’ve played so far against them, but the second half, that was us.”
These clubs detest each other in the boardroom and on the terraces – the latest alleged spitting incident speaks to that – but the respect and reverence the managers have for the work their counterpart has done transcends all.
In the opening weeks of the season, Klopp couldn’t understand how Chelsea were considered title favourites over City. Guardiola was bewildered that Liverpool were being written off altogether.
Sunday’s showdown at Anfield only hardened what they already know: They’re still the benchmark in this league.
Of course, both managers respect Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, who are currently perched at the summit to complement their status as continental kings.
But City comprehensively outplayed them at Stamford Bridge and were never in danger at any stage of their victory.
Chelsea were defensively diligent to secure a draw with 10 men at Anfield, however, there was never a feeling from the home technical area that it was a fixture that could define the league.
Tuchel’s men are worthy adversaries, but not the adversaries.
Manchester United, meanwhile, have the counter-attacking tools to win decisive matches against their fellow powerhouses but there appears no credence in a sustained, consistence push for league honours.
Their triumph over Leeds United aside, there has been too much jeopardy in matches for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men. They do not control nor contour clashes by their design, rather allowing them to happen and colouring them with fine moments from fine players.
Guardiola and Klopp may publicly oversell the strength of Chelsea and United, but privately City and Liverpool are sparring only with each other – it would be a sizeable shock to both if neither are champions.
They know that their achievements over the past few years count for little in the current season, but there has been even less to suggest they aren’t still the teams to beat.
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