The rivalries with the other Big Six sides have their storylines:
The Manchester derby is all about the battle for Manchester and The Old Guard fighting against The New Order: the undisputed champ and the unexpected local challenger.
City v. Chelsea is the Clash of the Cash — the league’s two gaudy nouveau riche clubs (and this season’s two leading title contenders).
Thanks to Arsène Wenger voyeuristic obsession with City’s spending, City v. Arsenal is all about free-spending versus fiscal conservativism.
City v. Spurs is all about city rivalries — and on Spurs’ fans part, jealousy that City’s lottery ticket came good.
Between their charming, atmospheric old ground and the lack of league success in the modern era, City v. Liverpool very much feels like modern football against The Way Things Used to Be. Of course this is a fundamentally flawed view in that Liverpool spend like any of the other top English sides — and, in fact, might have fallen afoul of Financial Fair Play last season like City and PSG had the Reds played in Europe.
But the fact remains Liverpool were the first of the old Sky Four to lose their Champions League spot for an extended period, which coincided with the rise of City under Sheikh Mansour. Technically it was Spurs who bumped them from Europe’s top competition in 2010, but if it hadn’t been them, it would’ve been City that season. City became Champions League regulars, while Liverpool were in exile.
The Sky Blues and Reds haven’t had much of a rivalry historically, especially since City’s much-documented decline in the mid-70s. Nowadays, Sky Blue-Red derbies are dominated by the home side — the visitors have just one win in the last 18 league meetings.
But last season’s fascinating title race may have seen the rise of a new rivalry between the two sides. The normally reserved Manuel Pellegrini stoked the flames in the run-up to Monday’s night’s match when he reopened some old wounds from this past spring by essentially calling Liverpool chokers, then patting himself on the back for successfully identifying them as such prior to the collapse. Plus, City fans’ love of singing about Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip isn’t exactly a salve for still-raw emotions on Merseyside.
Last season, the two clubs separated by 34 miles of the M62 finished just two points part in the standings. Both set out to improve squad depth over the summer. City strategically brought in seemingly perfect fits at positions in need of depth to prevent last season’s late-winter fixture congestion swoon, while Liverpool sought to expand a squad with European fixtures on the books this season. But Brendan Rodgers was thrown a wrench with the unexpected sale of Luis Suarez — probably the third-best player in the world.
With a week to go before the summer transfer window slams shut, Liverpool still are looking to reinvest the fee they received from Barcelona for Suarez. City, on the other hand, have the deepest squad in the Premier League in place and their only personnel concerns are the fitness of their World Cup participants and Alvaro Negredo’s injury layoff.
For a side in flux, Liverpool looked fairly slick for a 30-minute period during the first half on Monday night. The only real sign of deficiency was the lack of a final ball to trouble Joe Hart in the City goal. Rodgers’s men had their hosts pinned back in their defensive third for long stretches, as City struggled to successfully clear the danger and launch counterattacks against the impressive Liverpool pressure, as the visitors piled men forward.
When Stevan Jovetic’s opener arrived, it felt very much against the run of play. But it signaled the beginning of a new phase of the game where City enjoyed a significant spell on top. When the Montenegrin added a second goal 10 minutes into the second half, City were firmly in control. And when Sergio Agüero scored moments after his introduction to make it 3-0, the result was in the bag. Not even an extremely unfortunate own goal by Pablo Zabaleta could spare the Reds.
It wasn’t fun for City fans to watch the majority of the first half, and Liverpool can hang their hat on coming into the Etihad and bossing a third of the game like that, even if their possession ultimately proved toothless. Fernando Reges had a few nice tackles and interceptions, but failed to inject himself into proceedings quite like he did in the opener, while Yaya Touré and Samir Nasri were fairly anonymous on an evening when City’s midfield failed to impress.
Aside from Gael Clichy and Martín Demichelis both struggling with Raheem Sterling’s pace, City’s defense looked fairly solid during Liverpool’s period in the ascendancy. The dodgy defensive moments that reared their head in the opener arrived with the own goal, which came after Demichelis lost Sturridge on the wing and allowed him to cross to the far post, where Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany both failed to mark Rickie Lambert. City were at sixes and sevens at the back for a few minutes afterward as a second Liverpool goal and nervy finish looked possible.
But unlike last season, when leads were squandered early on away from home and unnecessary late goals caused unnecessary sweating even at home, City saw this one out. It helped matters that a string of injuries to Liverpool’s back four after Rodgers had used all three substitutions resulted in the Reds playing the final minutes with 10 men on the pitch, only eight of whom were moving freely.
Pundits will be rushing to identify major implications from this one, which is silly given the fact the 2014/15 Premier League is all of 10 days old and the transfer window remains open. Going into the season, most regarded City and Chelsea as title favorites, and nothing really had changed in that sense. As for Liverpool, they will be a different side in a month, let alone by the end of the season, as they gel and possibly add some parts. Their highest-profile signing from this summer, one Mario Balotelli, wasn’t even eligible to play in this one.
Speaking of Balotelli, Rodgers identified his signing of the Italian as a “calculated risk.” It’s definitely a risk, but I’d be interested in picking the Liverpool manager’s brain to find out his thinking on bringing in a player who seems at first glance to be a poor fit for his system and who has worn out his welcome quickly at all three of his previous stops.
For all his flashes of talent, ask any Inter Milan, City, or AC Milan supporter about Balotelli and they’ll probably express some combination of amusement at his personality (which is a breath of fresh air in the boring world of boring footballers) and utter frustration with his play on the pitch. His sale was met with a collective shrug by supporters because they remember all the times Balotelli attempted ill-advised dribbles at (sometimes two) defenders, shot when he should’ve passed, and lost his composure on the pitch — resulting in red cards and suspensions. These memories drown out the goals, of which there were a fair number.
My biggest problem with Balotelli at City was the way he seemed to be playing a different game than his teammates. He famously fell out with Roberto Mancini, but the reality is that Pellegrini would’ve sold him the next summer anyway. He just wasn’t a fit for Pellgrini’s quick passing game and team approach. And that’s why I’m scratching my head about Liverpool signing him, given the way Rodgers sides play. It almost feels more about bringing a big-name player following the ego-deflating sale of Suarez than a footballing move.
As for City, the only real question mark in their squad is their marquee summer signing: 23-year old Eliaquim Mangala, who is believed to be approaching fitness following his post-World Cup layoff. The Frenchman’s £32m price tag is eye-popping for a central defender, and he’ll want to hit the ground running to justify that transfer fee. That could happen as soon as Saturday, when Stoke City visit the Etihad.
But following an important early season win, City should be feeling pretty good about things right about now — especially following such an up-and-down beginning last season. Pellegrini’s men aren’t yet firing on all cylinders, but they look all right, considering the less-than-ideal aftereffects of the World Cup.