Allianz Arena, April 2015, and at the end of their last competitive encounter Jürgen Klopp sprinted past Pep Guardiola to join the celebrations rather than offer commiserations or a handshake.
It was nothing personal, simply a release in a draining final season at Borussia Dortmund and one last shot across the bows of Bayern Munich. Klopp’s admiration for Guardiola is genuine, his anticipation for their reunion clear and heightened, but what matters most to the Liverpool manager is that his team meet Manchester City on New Year’s Eve on equal terms. This season’s Premier League has levelled their playing field.
Footage of Klopp’s wild, or just characteristic, reaction to Dortmund’s victory in the 2015 German Cup semi-final went viral and encouraged the contrasting image between the two coaching heavyweights of the Bundesliga – the besuited Guardiola, king of controlled possession, looking on bemused as the counterpressing Klopp rushed by in a blur of yellow baseball cap and grey hoodie.
It followed a farcical penalty shootout between their former clubs, featuring Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso slipping and missing Bayern’s first two penalties and Manuel Neuer smacking their last against the crossbar as Dortmund prevailed 2-0 (they would lose the final to Wolfsburg), and there was an acknowledgement of sorts between the coaches when, long after the chaos, Klopp patted Guardiola on the back. The shootout brought them level on four wins apiece in meetings in Germany.
Their rivalry was intense and started with Klopp’s belief that Mario Götze defected to Bayern in 2013 because of the former Barcelona coach. “Götze has gone because he is Guardiola’s personal chosen signing and he wants to play with Guardiola, in his style,” he remarked. “If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine. I can’t make myself 15cm shorter or start speaking Spanish.” But any animosity was directed at Bayern and the financial imbalance that took Götze, followed a year later by Robert Lewandowski, to Bavaria, prompting that famous Klopp line about Bayern being the Chinese of the business world: “They look at what others are doing and copy it, just with more money.” It was not about beating Guardiola then or now, insists Klopp. It was, and is, about competing and winning.
“We never thought in these categories,” the Liverpool manager said this week when asked about the financial disparities between Bayern and Dortmund. “It was how it was and we were used to it. It’s not that we feel that we are now on one level because I’m not interested in it. What I am interested in is that this team is in a good way and we like how our football is, and we have to prove it every few days. That is what we try to do for Saturday.
“It’s really interesting. I know people are excited when they think about it. There is nothing to do apart from prepare the party for afterwards while everyone watches the television. The good news is that we are involved. It’s not City v someone else, it’s Liverpool v Man City. We are some kind of a challenger. We don’t care about being favourite or whatever, it feels like we are always challenging in each game and have to prove it, and now we have to make the people happy again. It’s possible. That’s how it is.”
Finances – one of Klopp’s least favourite subjects and something he regards as an unhealthy obsession in the Premier League – remain tilted in Guardiola’s favour, with City’s starting lineup in their last outing at Hull City costing more than £100m higher than Liverpool’s against Stoke City. However, as Klopp is fond of saying, it is what happens on the pitch that matters above all else and in that regard he is at an advantage before Saturday’s match between second and third in the Premier League. Liverpool are nine months further along the line with their manager’s work than City and Klopp has overseen 46 games more in English football than his counterpart at the Etihad Stadium.
“I don’t know in general if that is an advantage but for the game there is no big advantage,” Klopp says. “Chelsea are six points ahead but in their game City should have scored a second with [Kevin] De Bruyne. It is possible then that the game is closed.
“The next situation is Costa’s equaliser. For most of this game they were much the better team. They could have won but they didn’t. They are already really, really good but I am more interested in our thing. We are in a very intensive moment, in a good moment and we need to keep on going but we have to adapt to the different qualities of our opponents, such as Stoke. A few parts may be similar, we will see, but in general it is a different game. A lot of things we have to do better from the Stoke game and I don’t mean the start. A little bit between the lines – Joe Allen turns and goes and made wonderful game the other day. De Bruyne can do that and it makes not too much sense for that to happen. We already know where we have to improve.”
Sadio Mané will play his penultimate game for Liverpool before departing for the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon and will be hoping to replicate the impact he made on his last appearance against a Guardiola team. The Senegal international starred in a 3-0 friendly win for Red Bull Salzburg over Bayern in January 2014, scoring one, winning a penalty for the second and creating the third – all before half-time – in a performance that first alerted Liverpool to the forward’s potential. A repeat at Anfield would be a fine parting gift.
“I remember it was a very good test for us,” Mané says. “We won 3-0 and for us to play against a big team like Bayern was a big moment. I was very happy that day to help make this kind of game and help my team. Pep was the Bayern coach, so maybe he will remember but now it is a different type of game, in a different league and it will be tough.
“It will be a very good game because it is two open teams. Maybe we have the best strikers, I can’t say, but in our mind it is not about being the best, it is about trying to score as many as we can. The most important thing is the three points. Of course it would help us make a big step if we won but it is not just City, we have to try to do that in every game. I just have to try to give my best and make the fans and my team-mates proud.”
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