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Pep’s out to prove a point or three

Hardcore Manchester City supporters are not given to forgetting their club’s darkest days as the ‘Boys In Blue’ descended into the 3rd tier of English football – nor would they wish to erase memories of those traumatic trudges and embarrassing capitulations at the likes of Lincoln, Wycombe and York.

File it under the heading of overcoming adversity, call it character-building, define it as part of City’s history – a history so often denied by rival supporters who fail to understand the meaning of the word – but whatever terminology is applied, such experiences are indelibly etched into the psyche of those who were integral to the fabled 28,000 average Maine Road home attendances of 1998/99, as City battled to drag themselves out of their own self induced mire, before the dawn of the new millennium.

It was scant consolation that City – make that ‘Typical City’, who all too often found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory – were the ‘second team’ of so many other football fans, solely on a sympathy vote cast because of the unrelenting success of Fergie’s all conquering Manchester United.

The adage, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ – albeit watching City over a period of decades could seriously damage your health – is all too apt to a diehard fan base who are now enjoying the best of times revelling in the glorious Guardiola era.

These are City’s days in the sun, their time to shine just as United did with Sir Baconface and, before them, Liverpool with Bill Shankly and more predominantly, Bob Paisley.

Irrespective of City’s success or lack of it whenever they’ve been in the top flight – be it the Premier League or old First Division – Anfield has invariably been a very unhappy hunting ground. At one stage City had won just twice over a period spanning more than 50 years. It’s only under Pep’s guidance that they have achieved a modicum of sustained success.

City were the better team in last seasons’s 2-2 draw – a game where the general consensus was that James Milner should’ve been sent off after blatantly upending Bernardo Silva. An empty Anfield – courtesy of the pandemic – saw City dismantle Klopp’s Premier League champions 4-1 in 2021, helped by a virtuoso Phil Foden performance and goalkeeper Alisson’s giveaways.

Had it not been for Riyad Mahrez’s penalty kick masquerading as a space satellite in 2018, City would have won, rather than having to settle for a 0-0 draw. A 3-1 City loss in November 2019, is the last time Klopp’s team tasted PL victory over City, with Guardiola’s side winning two and drawing three of the last five fixtures.

Unbeaten City are 13 points ahead of their despised rivals (albeit Liverpool have a game in hand) and are the bookies favourites for the three points. But weird and not so wonderful things can, and often do, happen when City go to Klanfield. Match officials have a horrible habit of pandering to the needs of the screaming Scousers.

Milner should’ve been off last season, but that is far from an isolated case when it comes to highly dubious and decidedly dodgy decisions in favour of the home team:

  • Penalty awarded for a double deflection onto Micah Richards’ arm in the League Cup semi final, January 2012. Gerrard scored in a 2-2 draw and Liverpool won 3-2 on aggregate to go through to the final, and ultimately win the Cup against Cardiff.

  • Luis Suarez – already on a yellow card after a late challenge on Martin Demichelis – wasn’t booked by referee Mark Clattenburg after the most blatant of dives. Clattenburg also denied City a stonewall penalty after Dzeko was felled by Mamadou Sakho’s reckless lunge. Liverpool emerged 3-2 victors and believed they’d won the title in April 2014. Manuel Pellegrini’s team – aided by Slippy G and Demba Ba – went on and proved otherwise.

  • Gabriel Jesus had the ball in the net but Leroy Sane was incorrectly flagged for offside. Raheem Sterling was denied a clear penalty after being brought down by Andy Robertson. Liverpool won 3-0 in the Champions League 1st leg QF after the infamous attack on City’s coach in April 2018.

  • A Trent Alexander-Arnold handball in the Liverpool penalty area was ignored by referee Michael Oliver, allowing Fabinho to go down the other end and score in the same phase of play. The VAR check ruled no handball on a day it was alleged the VAR system was malfunctioning during the first half. Liverpool won 3-1 in November 2019.

Sky blue tinted glasses aside, there have been occasions when City – under Pep – have lost at Anfield without too much controversy; 1-0 in his first season in December 2016 and 4-3 in January 2018.

Despite Arsenal sitting one point and one place above City, Pep still believes Liverpool represent the most potent threat to his team winning three consecutive Premier League titles: “Liverpool have always been our biggest challengers. I know the quality that they have. If it was like this with 10 games left I would say I don’t think they can catch us, but now anything can happen.”

Of course he’s right, but if City were to win and open up a 16-point advantage – Liverpool even with a game in hand – would surely be out of contention. Yes, at times last season City led by a huge margin in the table, but that was skewed by Liverpool having up to four games in hand due to alleged Covid19 outbreaks at Anfield.

Pep remembers it well, just as he and City supporters remember all the jibes aimed at the manager and some star players during his tenure at the Etihad.

Inheriting an ageing and under-achieving squad, Guardiola guided City to a third place finish, Champions League qualification and an FA Cup semi final in his first season – not great by his own supremely high standards – but good enough for City’s owners who knew what was to follow.

But still the buffoons who were willing him to fail, labelled him Fraudiola, spouting garbage that his Tiki-taka style was doomed in England.

He was lambasted for his handling of the then 17-year old Phil Foden’s development. This would be the same Foden who has since won four Premier League titles, four League Cups, one FA Cup, two Community Shields, scoring 52 goals along with 36 assists in 182 appearances, at the age of 22. This will be the same Foden with two PFA Young Player of the Year Awards, who has just committed himself to his boyhood club, signing a new contract through to 2027.

Neither Guardiola or City fans need reminding of the ‘pundits’ who delighted in Erling Haaland missing a good opportunity, when Liverpool beat City 3-1 in the Community Shield in August.

The perceived ‘wisdom’ was Haaland would need time to adjust to the demands of the Premier League. This wasn’t Norway, Austria or the German Bundesliga – no this was England! Oh the arrogance!

By contrast, Darwin Nunez, Liverpool’s new £64m (with a further £21.3m in potential add-ons) was going to light up the league after snatching a debut goal in the season curtain-raiser. The bitter irony is that Jurgen Klopp is once again bleating in the approach to a big game with City. "Nobody can compete with City. You have the best team in the world and you put in the best striker on the market, no matter what he cost. We can't act like them at Liverpool. It is not possible." How predictably pathetic, one could even think Klopp sounds somehow victimised.

It’s even more laughable when just 12 games and 20 goals later, The Nordic Meat Shield is THE most talked about player in England, Europe and maybe the whole world.

There would have been plenty of belly laughs and snorts of derision in the past, if anyone had dared suggest City would ever travel down the East Lancs Road as favourites. For half-a-century there was virtually no point in City going to the red half of Merseyside – it was literally pointless – a case study in football futility.

Let’s see who’s laughing come Sunday evening and hope Pep, Haaland & Co can deliver the perfect punch line.

By David Walker

Twitter: @ReadButNeverRed @djwskyblu

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