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On Playing Manchester City: A New Rivalry?

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Why trying to to define a new rivalry actually sells the two clubs short

Liverpool v Manchester City - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Leg One Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

For the past two seasons (and arguably three, since Liverpool only fell off the title hunt in the advanced stages of the Champions League in 2017/18), Manchester City v Liverpool and its reverse fixture have become two of the most meaningful games in the Premier League calendar.

It might be worth reviewing the recent records to show how little space there is between the two sides.

In the 2017/18 season, Manchester City won the league as Centurions, with Liverpool giving them one of their only two losses of the season (the delightful 4-3 in January prior to the two Champions League Quarter-Final legs that knocked Manchester City out of the competition as Liverpool progressed to the final). While earlier in the season City beat Liverpool 5-0 at the Etihad (after Sadio Mané was sent off with a straight red for dangerous play after his high boot challenge on Ederson), these three meaningful fixtures near the season’s end would set the tone for the next few years.

Liverpool fans will certainly remember the 2018/19 results, as the Reds lost the Premier League to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City by one point, breaking the club points record in the process. Reds fans bemoan the narrow margins in both fixtures, as the Reds drew 0-0 at Anfield in a hard-fought game, and lost 2-1 at the Etihad, with Mané’s effort being ruled no goal by the narrowest of margins. Had Liverpool changed just one of those results for the better, they would have won their 19th league title a year early.

In the League-winning campaign of 2019/20, Liverpool righted those wrongs, winning the game that mattered by defeating Manchester City 3-1 at Anfield in a game that left Guardiola shouting uselessly at the fourth official (he’ll be gutted to learn, as I’ve previously noted, that the calls in the match have been confirmed as correct). While City did hammer Liverpool 4-0 at the Etihad, they did so immediately after the Reds had been crowned champions in what was a dead rubber.

In terms of silverware, there’s a lot of space between the two sides, with Liverpool’s 19 league titles dwarfing City’s six, and Liverpool’s 63 total honors* more than doubling Manchester City’s 26.

While the two clubs are close in FA Cups and League Cups (Liverpool having a one-cup advantage in both categories with seven and eight, respectively), Liverpool have historically massively outperformed Manchester City in Europe with six European Cups, three EUFA/Europa League Cups, four UEFA Super Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup (compared to Manchester City’s lone UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup).

Liverpool Display Their Current Trophies at Anfield Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

Numbers, though, never tell the whole story of a potential rivalry, and every single one of these meetings might stand out to fans.

Oddly, for me one of the losses is most cemented in my memory.

Many say that the 2-1 loss at the Etihad cost us the title in 2018/19 season. Leaving post-season reflection aside, though, I can’t recall being gutted at the result on the night. That match was quite possibly one of the best-quality matches I have ever seen, and it was lost (and won) on the narrowest of margins. Had Liverpool taken a point or three, I doubt City would have complained.

I watched that match in rapturous attention, and at around 60’ I remember being struck by how lucky I was to be watching and cheering for a team this good — and, at the same time, how incredible it was that two sides who were this good at once were battling it out at that level.

I was in Liverpool for the match, watching in Motel on Fleet Street after having just seen us demolish Arsenal a few days before. The holiday period can be a blur if the results don’t pull themselves away from the noise (I could tell you very little about last season’s Wolves and Sheffield United matches bar that I almost fell down some stairs at one of them).

But in 2018/19, both fixtures around the New Year stood out. That win against Arsenal was memorable, and not just because of Bobby Firmino’s insistence on embarrassing the entirety of the Arsenal defense.

No, the most memorable element for me was actually Arsenal scoring. Before the ball was in the center circle for kickoff at 0-1, Anfield made it clear that the goal was a blip, something that happened in error and would soon be rectified. The level of noise spurring the Reds – who had dominated so much early on that the Arsenal defense seemed shattered, broken and yelling at each other before 20 minutes had gone – to get the equalizer and then the winner was incredible, simultaneous, and effective.

We won 5-1. That victory was inevitable was palpable in the ground.

Roberto Firmino leaves the Arsenal defenders littered on the ground as he scores his second
Roberto Firmino leaves the Arsenal defenders littered on the ground as he scores his second
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

This audible and collective level of belief in the side was before the long stretch of late goals and 1-0s that carried Liverpool to the title in 2019/20; this was before Barcelona 4-0, and before we all had a reason to believe that this Reds team could come back from anything. I’m sure the sense of unwavering belief in the side didn’t start there, but it does in my memory.

And then five days later, we lost to City. And I couldn’t really manage to be sad. I would love to say that I knew then what we would go on to accomplish, but I can’t claim to that level of prescience. I just knew very distinctly then that I was watching something special. I had a great night out. I met friends that night who remain friends now. We all did a lot of singing.

A lot of my best memories are located in my mind via football matches and moments. This match is one of the only memories I have where the fixture that locates my memories – that I use as a shorthand of “where I was when” – is both positive and a loss.

We all remember where we were when we came back against Barcelona, incredulous with happiness. We all remember where we were when we lost to Stoke, devastated by the dishonor to Steven Gerrard.

For me, this Manchester City game sticks out because I remember where I was when we lost, and my memories are rosy. I don’t have another loss like that.

What that suggests to me is that whatever this Liverpool side has with Manchester City is special. Facing the challenge of high-class opposition functions to highlight just how good you are. Guardiola’s anger in losing at Anfield last season underscores the stakes.

Liverpool FC v Manchester City - Premier League
Guardiola rubs his head in seeming sadness as his side loses to Liverpool at Anfield in November 2019
Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Are these sides rivals? Is this the new cross-city rivalry of the Premier League era?

Personally, I don’t think the sides have been at the same level for long enough to establish a rivalry. For me, rivalries are more than just “two very good teams competing with each other for a title for three seasons” — it needs to be sustained.

But at the bottom of it all, the “rivalry” title doesn’t particularly matter. Football is defined by moments, defined by journeys over the course of a season. Even without fans in the stadium, we can mark our days and weeks and months with fixture lists. With “Where I Was When.”

If Manchester City — or Liverpool! — stop competing with each other on the highest domestic levels over the next few seasons, their competitiveness may have been a moment, and not a rivalry. But even so, the two sides, led the two remarkable managers, have given us memory enough to leave a mark on fans of either club.

And in the end, those memories matter. They’re what collectively define the life of a football supporter. And this weekend, we have the chance make more of them. Manchester City may need the points more than Liverpool, but I back us to go there and emphatically take them.

*This includes Charity/Community Shields; without this cup, Liverpool would have 48 total honors and Manchester City would have 20.