Klopp-Guardiola rivalry has produced finest football the Premier League’s ever known

Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola embrace
The Klopp-Guardiola era has set the loftiest aesthetic benchmark - Getty Images/Robbie Jay Barratt
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The embrace between Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola felt longer, more laden with pathos than usual. They knew, amid their shared exhaustion after 99 absurdly high-octane minutes, that this was their last time sharing such a moment together.

Ten weeks from now, Klopp will have bid the teariest of adieus to Anfield, conceding he has run out of energy. And can you blame him? This was an occasion, above all, to savour what happens when two teams built by two remorselessly intense managers collide. As a contest, this was draining, unyielding, captivating. It brought one last precious reminder of the finest rivalry, in terms of pure quality, that the Premier League has seen.

True, the duels between Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were fiercer, more fraught. But these duels of the Klopp-Guardiola era have set the loftiest aesthetic benchmark. At times, Klopp was windmilling his arms towards the Liverpool fans behind him, as if demanding that they acknowledge the standard of performance. His agitation was well-founded, with his side’s 20-minute bombardment in the second half stretching City as seldom before. A “tsunami”, Guardiola called it, admiringly.

Jurgen Klopp looks to whip up the Anfield crowd
Klopp looked to whip up the Anfield crowd - PA/Peter Byrne

Nobody wants there to be too much of a managerial love-in. The treacle was laid on a touch too thickly when, at the end of a pulsating 2-2 draw at the Etihad in 2022, Guardiola high-fived Klopp for all he was worth. On this occasion, the mutual affection was forgivable, as they realised that these confrontations had run out of road. After 22 games, 73 goals and more touchline histrionics than are possible to count, their Premier League chapter is closed. Few spectacles in football call for thankfulness but for this, perhaps, we can make an exception.

There were so many luminous displays to mark the saga’s finale. From Alexis Mac Allister, the master puppeteer in midfield, to Virgil van Dijk, the insuperable titan at the back, Liverpool produced a feast for the senses. City, too, discovered qualities that they are seldom called on to show, with John Stones and Manuel Akanji standing supreme against constant pressure. Klopp must wonder what he has to do to make them fold. The degrees by which he has elevated them are all there in the numbers: Liverpool finished their campaign in 2019 with 97 points, and 92 three years later. Both times City surpassed them on the final day.

“Breathtakingly brilliant,” Gary Lineker called this match. And it was, in its richest interludes, with Liverpool finding ever more intricate ways to carve City open. Wonderment, whenever these two clubs have met for the past eight years, has come almost guaranteed. Take the day in 2018 when Liverpool prevailed 4-3 at Anfield, in a campaign where City became the first Premier League side to amass 100 points. Or City’s 2-1 victory at the Etihad in 2019, when they served early warning of a late-season surge that would be remembered for 14 straight wins.

It has been a wild, intoxicating ride, with these clubs hauling themselves so far clear of the rest that, for long stretches, they might as well have been playing their own private competition. This time, there is an extra piquant ingredient in Mikel Arteta’s free-wheeling, free-scoring Arsenal. When Arsenal were last serial title contenders, Ferguson was having pizza thrown at him in the Old Trafford tunnel by Cesc Fabregas, while Ruud van Nistelrooy had Martin Keown screaming in his face. The compound of those Arsenal and United vintages was moreish, acrid, with fans developing a craving for a flashpoint more toxic than the last.

Martin Keown screams in the face of Ruud van Nistelrooy
Vintage clashes between Arsenal and Man Utd were fiercer, more fraught - Getty Images/Shaun Botterill

Liverpool versus City, by contrast, has been more of a purist’s delight. The background to the exquisite football has been the gripping personality clash of the two managers, between Guardiola, the classic Catalan sophisticate, and Klopp, the highly-strung German heavy metal enthusiast. These two artists might, on paper, come across as diametric opposites. But together, they have composed a symphony. The only pity was that this was the final movement.

When Klopp went through the post-match hugs, he did not just stop at Guardiola. He lingered with Kevin De Bruyne, too, conscious of how much brilliance the Belgian has brought to this story. While this was far from De Bruyne’s greatest day – indeed, he was substituted after an hour, due to one too many wasteful lapses in possession – Klopp knows a game-changer when he sees one. For all the frustrations that engulfed him at the final whistle, especially over Michael Oliver’s refusal to award a penalty for Jeremy Doku’s late contact on Mac Allister, he remained mindful of the wider picture. He recognised that in three months’ time, the frustrations of facing City would be gone from his life for good.

Jurgen Klopp questions Michael Oliver's refusal to award Liverpool a late penalty
Jurgen Klopp questioned Michael Oliver's refusal to award Liverpool a late penalty - Getty Images/Alex Livesey

At one level, that might feel like a liberation. But at another, it feels like a loss. The Premier League has enjoyed the rarest of treats with this City-Liverpool dynamic, as two teams have driven each other to extremes of excellence that would once have been unthinkable in England. The perfectionists in charge have taken the game to a different stratosphere from the Ferguson-Wenger age, and the thought that they might never again do battle hung heavy in the drizzly Merseyside air. “Everyone around this ground just stood up and applauded at the end,” reflected Pat Nevin. “It was a kind of, ‘Well, thank you.’” He was right. After this, the latest in a series of blistering battles, the only rational response was gratitude.

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