On the weekend that Chelsea absorbed a first-half assault from Tottenham to then swat them aside 3-0 and David de Gea saved Mark Noble’s penalty at the death to take Manchester United from the edge of dropped points again to victory over West Ham, both Thomas Tuchel and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer bristled at the analysis of their teams.
It was for contrasting reasons, but underpinned by the same wider point. The German was annoyed that Chelsea were being billed as a faultless side on account of results and was at pains to stress that “it’s not an excuse to say we are not ready yet. We still have to improve.”
Tuchel was concerned that with a clash against Manchester City looming, his players were susceptible to the hype, especially having ousted Pep Guardiola’s machine three times under him last season. He felt they were not yet on the same sphere as the defending champions, a fact that later on showed at Stamford Bridge.
Solskjaer, meanwhile, was incensed that a late win – emotive, galvanising and mood-shifting – had been painted as an inferior way to gain three points as United never took the game away from West Ham.
At Carrington, there was annoyance that not being as dominant as City and Liverpool’s recent title-lifting sides received more emphasis than their position in the standings. “There is no comments section in the league table,” had become one refrain at the United training complex.
While that is true, it is undeniable that to be considered concrete challengers, you have to stack up to the benchmark set by those two teams that have redefined what it takes to be champions of England.
Both Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have preached about “near perfection” being needed to win this division, which stems from City’s 100-point campaign in 2018-19. They blitzed in 106 goals, conceding just 27 times, and while the rest of the Big Six had ultimately waved the white flag in seriously competing with such a formidable prospect, Liverpool built a team on and off the pitch to do just that.
In the seasons since – with last term being the anomaly on account of empty stadia, positive Covid cases and the destabilising injury crisis at Anfield – the pair have been out on their own and only consider the other to be true, relentless rivals.
As one Liverpool staffer highlighted: “United and Chelsea have not achieved 90-plus points under their managers, have not gone on long winning runs and have not shown a comparable consistency. Them expected to be title challengers is not the same as proving they can be near perfect like City and us have done.”
It is no secret that Tuchel’s team are considered a more likely threat than United at the Etihad and on Merseyside. But Chelsea are not whom either manager most concern themselves with.
Guardiola and Klopp, with their opposing tactical and life approaches, have extracted the best out of each other.
While the defending champions and Liverpool have a deep animosity in the boardroom and in the stands – Financial Fair Play, the attack on City’s team bus, the alleged scouting breach from Liverpool that was settled for £1m without admission of guilt, and Guardiola’s players singing a disparaging version of Allez, Allez, Allez – the men in the dugout have revered each other’s work.
“Jurgen Klopp’s teams helped me to be a better manager,” said Guardiola, who has lost more games against Liverpool’s boss than any other opponent. “He put me at another level, to think about it, to prove myself, to be a better manager. That is the reason why I am still in this business. The last four years, all the time, we were both there. It’s the biggest compliment that both clubs were there.”
Klopp was as warm about his rival: “I like him and I respect him and it’s really one of the biggest challenges for all managers in football to face his teams, because they are good. If you make a mistake you get punished and that is pretty much the game against Man City always. So you had better not make a lot of mistakes because otherwise you will get a knock.”
Ahead of the start of the season, Guardiola and his assistants were bewildered by analysis from prominent pundits such as Gary Neville who discounted Liverpool from title talk.
Over at Anfield, meanwhile, it was felt ridiculous that Chelsea were discussed in more certain terms than City, who have won the league in three of the past four years.
Klopp spoke to that when he declared on Friday that Guardiola’s men “are still, for me, probably the best team in Europe at the moment”.
The 54-year-old extrapolated on this by looking at City’s previous two fixtures and the way in which they controlled two elite opponents, even if their Champions League result in Paris was not favourable.
“Man City are an outstanding football team,” Klopp said. “They lost against PSG because they didn’t use their chances. But when you think about the quality of the PSG team and how Man City dominated them, that says a lot about their quality. We have to play a proper football game to have a chance.
“Last weekend they played Chelsea and everyone was talking about Chelsea and how good they are – and they are really good – but City clearly won the battle that day.”
Sunday is a showdown of Liverpool, the only side still unbeaten in the league and its highest scorers, against the side who have conceded the fewest goals so far in 2021-22.
City have kept a clean sheet in each of their last five games and did not face a shot on target in three (Norwich, Arsenal and Chelsea) of their six domestic fixtures so far this season.
Beyond those surface-level stats, Sunday represents the boxing of the finest two teams in England – the ones the rest still don’t compare to and still have to catch up to.
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