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A Different Kind of Rivalry Defines the Premier League Title Race

With just five games to go, Manchester City and Liverpool are once again trading blows as the best teams in England

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The embrace between Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola two weekends ago at full time of the FA Cup semifinal was more subdued than the theatrical, jump-attack in the Premier League six days before that. Klopp more or less fielded his strongest Liverpool team against a Manchester City side weakened by a punishing midweek Champions League tie against Atlético Madrid. During the FA Cup match, City, who fell 3-0 down, managed to stay in it until the last kick, with Fernandinho blazing any lingering hopes of extra time over the bar. Phil Foden dropped to the ground at the final whistle. Gabriel Jesus winced. Jack Grealish, who pulled one back for the Cityzens, crouched down to take his shin pads out, gassed. But Ibrahima Konaté—who scored his third consecutive goal in as many matches, who is going to the FA Cup finals, who won—wearily acknowledged the fans, sort of unfazed about the whole thing. Liverpool would have to play Manchester United on Tuesday, the Merseyside Derby five days after that, and then a Champions League semifinal the week after that. There was no time to celebrate, and perhaps no desire to, either.

For so long, a “great” rivalry has been recognizable by a constant cycle of pain and triumph; free-flowing barbs in the press; a mutual admiration obscured by decades of lingering professional hatred. Despite trading blows for the past four years as the best team in England—the world, maybe—the relationship between Liverpool and City is, curiously, not that.

Instead, Liverpool and City’s thing feels defined by—aside from financially unattainable, technically perfect, visually pleasing soccer—exhaustion. It’s an unfamiliar kind of rivalry, in which two otherwise unrelated teams just happen to be chasing history at the same time. Unfortunately, history needs losers. No City player would publicly blame the 3-2 loss directly on the demanding schedule: Grealish himself “would not make excuses” for their FA Cup performance following four games in 12 days; Oleksandr Zinchenko added that they could be “tired mentally, but you have to sort out these things at this level.” And yet, both managers make biweekly calls for fewer games in the fixture list. Guardiola didn’t make his first substitution until the 83rd minute—was it out of dogma, or strategic necessity?

Klopp, in particular, is positively staid these days in comparison to his first days at Liverpool. “Only recently I saw a picture of me in 2005,” he said, ahead of the FA Cup clash. “I saw a picture of me when I arrived here, too [in October 2015]. Unfortunately I see myself in the mirror every morning so the last six years have been pretty intense. I see a different person now.”

It’s easy to forget that his 2015-16 side finished eighth. The 2016-17 side qualified for the Champions League, but it was also an uneven team, capable of clobbering Arsenal one week and then getting blanked by Burnley the next. The following year, they secured their second consecutive top-four finish, added an elite defender in Virgil van Dijk, and started to morph into the swashbuckling team we all know and love, save for both sets of Manchester fans. In 2018, Liverpool had its best season ever and finished with 97 points, enough to have won 25 of the previous 26 Premier League titles. It didn’t matter, because City was one point better. The following season, it seemed like they would actually outpace the Cityzens—and eventually did win, after the league resumed from its pandemic break, winning the title by a whopping 18 points. After all of that struggle, Liverpool hoisted their first league trophy in 30 years behind closed doors.

The most profound victory of the Klopp era is that Liverpool are revered as one of the most successful clubs in England again, which also means they are perpetually doomed. Success catches up with a team; the more games you win, the more games there are to play. But Liverpool are still here, closing in on their second title in three years—after trailing by as many as 14 points this season—thanks to their shrewd recruitment policy.

Was Liverpool thinking that maybe the league had finally adjusted to the three-headed snake of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, and Roberto Firmino? Then just sign Diogo Jota, who this season has ripped off 15 goals and two assists in the Premier League alone. As this season winds down, it seems Salah may not renew his contract, and while it would hurt losing a potential Ballon d’Or winner who seems set to secure his third Golden Boot this season, he has scored only two open-play goals since February. Luis Díaz, the breathless January signing who’s contributed to five goals in nine Premier League appearances, seems to be melding into Liverpool’s heavy metal system just fine. Just as it seemed that Andy Robertson’s take no prisoners, whip all crosses style was beginning to wear on him physically, in steps Konstantino Tsimikas. When Klopp could no longer turn to his choice pairing for van Dijk in Joël Matip, there was Konaté, an identically rangy center back who can also score goals. When he needs to change the look of a game in the 70th minute, instead of Xherdan Shaqiri, he can turn to Thiago Alcantara, who can pick the fleas off of a dog’s back with a half-volley from 50 yards.

This isn’t to suggest that Guardiola is the poorer for his choices, but that City are once again having to show that they have grit, and not just guile. The story of Liverpool in the past few years has been about players finding elite form at almost precisely the right time; meanwhile, City has been persevering with a style that’s perhaps too beautiful for the punishing realities of modern soccer (despite them being perennial challengers in every major competition).

Since Guardiola’s arrival in 2016, City has been a formalist’s dream. Sweeping, intricate moves, capped by deadly finishing as the opposing team chases ghosts. But before you saw the score line from City’s recent must-win trip to Brighton, you would have expected City to win 3-0, and yet, until Kevin De Bruyne unlocked a frustrating Seagulls defense and angrily lifted the crowd, the game looked as good as dropped points. The images from their Champions League tie with Atlético are a montage of relief and perseverance; Guardiola in the technical area bitterly splashing water in “celebration” after being denied for the better part of 90 minutes; Phil Foden gazing into the middle distance with a bandage wrapped around his head, having won the tie, but at a cost. Guardiola admitted that he’d included De Bruyne, who went as an unused substitute, in the FA Cup squad despite his not being fit to play; the team as a whole needed “71 [injury] treatments” to get ready for Liverpool.

Despite Guardiola’s protestations, for now, Liverpool are still the underdogs, once again by a point. City were back to their dominating ways with a 5-1 victory over Watford on Saturday, even as Liverpool comfortably put down their Merseyside rivals, Everton. So long as City slip up just once, the Reds can win the title if they’re perfect through the next five games—which doesn’t sound unfeasible considering they’re unbeaten in 14. But Manchester City are chasing four league wins in the past five seasons for a reason. Injuries or not, City will fight to the end—and for now, they remain in the driving seat.