LONDON – Manchester City has collected compliments and plaudits almost on a weekly basis this season and rightly so, though the premature if inevitable claims about Pep Guardiola’s team being the best English side of all-time took a severe dent when Liverpool thrashed — not too strong a word — the visitors 3-0 at Anfield on Wednesday.
City’s Abu Dhabi-based owners did not hire Guardiola to win the Premier League as that was taken for granted. It had twice finished first since the takeover and the Catalan had led Barcelona and Bayern Munich to domestic success so that was as expected as is possible, not least with a seemingly bottomless pit of transfer funds.
It is the holy grail of the Champions League that was in the sights of Sheikh Mansour and company when they brought in Guardiola and the dream of conquering Europe, for this season anyway, hangs by the slenderest of threads.
History can be a powerful opponent and when City hosts Liverpool on Tuesday (after the little matter of a potential title-clinching derby against Manchester United on Saturday) it must become only the second team, after Deportivo La Coruna against AC Milan in 2004, to overturn a three-goal first leg deficit at the quarterfinal stage of the competition.
The side we thought was close to perfection was demolished by a high-octane Liverpool. City, the highest scorer in the Premier League, did not manage a single shot on target. This was a City we had not seen this season, ragged instead of rampant, timid instead of terrorizing. Jose Mourinho would have taken note of the way Liverpool’s rookie fullbacks Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson not only kept the usually lethal Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and substitute Raheem Sterling quiet, silent in fact, but were also so effective in attack.
In midfield the energy and commitment of Reds’ captain Jordan Henderson, James Milner, who looked 32 going on 22 and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan look pedestrian, while in attack the raw pace and clinical finishing of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane had the tightest defense in the Premier League chasing shadows.
Liverpool will be on hold for a few days and the game against United, which had seemed one City could afford to lose because it is when rather than if the Blues win the title, has a very different look post-Anfield. Nobody expected City to lose 3-0, maybe by the odd goal, but not by three and a second defeat, albeit effectively meaningless in terms of the title, has become a must-not-lose match for the league leader. Two losses to its main rivals ahead of mission almost impossible on Tuesday would leave a very different perspective of a side that suddenly became human at Anfield.
With the English title all but gift-wrapped, Liverpool, not United, remains the priority for City. It was thought that Guardiola would not even field a full-strength team today, though given the riches at his disposal no side he selects could be called weak. It is a question of rotating his squad to ensure City has the best chance in Tuesday’s second leg against Liverpool, but the defeat at Anfield will have given the Catalan not so much food for thought as a full-blown banquet. There will be a second chance after United, but not after Liverpool.
Mourinho will be loving City’s unexpected, if probably temporary demise. When City beat United 2-1 at Old Trafford last December, Mourinho complained about the noise from celebrating visiting players. “I don’t like a circus when you win and you’re happy,” he said — a bit rich coming from the man who raced down the Old Trafford touchline jumping and punching the air to join his jubilant players after FC Porto knocked United out of the Champions League in 2004.
The Portuguese has a memory that makes an elephant appear forgetful and if City completes the double at Etihad Stadium on Saturday and beats United to clinch the Premier League title, Mourinho will probably need ear plugs but should City fail — again — it is the safest of bets that the visitor will return the noise with interest.
April 7 has been penciled in for weeks as the match that could see City secure its third English crown in seven seasons. It is now a reality. The English title has never been won before April 14 and to do this at United’s expense would be as good as it gets for City, though for Mourinho, particularly, an unwanted ignominious addition to his CV.
Apart from their opinion of each other, the coaches have little in common though the suspicion is that the ill feeling is more one-sided as Guardiola has had the better of Mourinho in their meetings: of their 20 head-to-heads Guardiola has won 10, Mourinho four with six draws. Mourinho, as he is quick to point out, has won more trophies, though he had an eight-year start on Guardiola which he is not so quick to point out.
At Anfield, City had the world’s jointmost expensive goalkeeper (Ederson, alongside Gigi Buffon), the world’s most expensive right-back (Kyle Walker) and the second most expensive central defender in the world (Aymeric Laporte). It still lost 3-0. City produced its worst performance of the season on the night it mattered most. Every player was below par, with the wrong team selection and tactics by Guardiola.
Former United captain Roy Keane said: “There’s a lot of hype about this Manchester City team being a ‘great’ team. That was a reality check. They’ve a lot to do before they are regarded as a great team.”
The “a lot” is to beat United and City. A week ago few would have bet against it. Now, few would bet on it.
Wilkins gone too soon
Team Heaven has signed an absolute star, but at 61 it was far too early for Ray Wilkins to move upstairs.
In the Seventies I ghosted a column for Ray (I cannot call him Wilkins) for SHOOT magazine. We remained friends and like everyone who met him, it is impossible to say a bad word about him. Ray united the sport in the best of ways.
He was not just one of the nicest footballers I knew, he was one of the nicest people, the only player to give me his signed World Cup shirt (from Spain ’82) which I did not ask for and made it even more special.
The former England captain played for Chelsea,Manchester United, AC Milan, PSG, Rangers, Queens Park Rangers, Crystal Palace,Wycombe, Hibernian, Millwall and Leyton Orient during a 24-yearcareer as a stylish if goal-shy (sorry Ray) midfielder.
Ray loved the game and the game certainly loved him. Planet Football is not quite the same now.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.