Premier League champions and Champions League title holders are going head-to-head at the weekend with no little intrigue added through the press
Pep Guardiola was happy to claim he may have been wrong to accuse Liverpool’s Sadio Mane of being a diver. But he couldn’t resist a mischievous sign-off to his clarification.
The Manchester City manager claimed he had not heard Jurgen Klopp’s response to his ‘diving’ comments on Monday ahead of the Reds’ Champions League clash with Genk. But then Pep cheekily borrowed the Liverpool manager’s words to respond to a ‘throwaway’ jibe about tactical fouls.
Asked on Tuesday what he thought of Klopp’s opinion that Guardiola thinks about Liverpool too much, the City boss said: “I don’t know. I didn’t listen to what he said.” Questioned about tactical fouling, he echoed Klopp by saying: “No comment on that. I don’t put oil in the fire.”
It’s the third media appearance in four days involving one of the two men and each time it’s added a little extra spice to Sunday’s huge top of the table Premier League clash at Anfield. It’s by no means a war of words between the two managers, for now, more a case of a friendly fire.
They each know how strong the other side has been. While they are quick to pay each other plenty of respect, neither will take a backward step in defending their players or getting them fired up for what has been without doubt the biggest game of the season and one that could go some way to deciding the destination of the title.
A victory would see Liverpool move nine points clear. An away win would see the defending champions cut the gap to just three. The stakes are huge. But with an injury crisis seriously hampering City’s build-up, it did Pep no harm to draw attention to any potential match-changing incidents ahead of time.
The same goes for Klopp. The German’s biggest surprise was that his opposite number knew about the Senegalese forward being booked for simulation during Liverpool’s win at Aston Villa and was able to mention it within minutes of both their games finishing at the weekend.
Guardiola meanwhile insisted the talk on Mane’s diving had come from a long answer praising the league leaders and their never-ending will to win. And he added that he was unsure about an injury-time penalty awarded in their late win at Leicester when Mane fell under a challenge from Marc Albrighton.
“My son and my daughter always when Liverpool win in the last minutes say Liverpool are lucky. I tell them not,” he said ahead of City’s Champions League clash at Atalanta. “What Liverpool has done this season and last season many times has been because they have this incredible quality to fight until the end.
“That’s why I said to my players – not just my son and daughter – that it has been not lucky. Sometimes, at ’94 against Leicester with the penalty, it was like ‘wow’. That was the intention for my comment but it was far from my intention to say that Sadio Mane has been that type of soccer professional.
“Even with that, the ref and the VAR said penalty. Maybe I was wrong to think it wasn’t a penalty.”
While Mane and Mohamed Salah are regularly accused of diving, tactical fouling has long been a dig aimed at Guardiola’s City. Manchester United managers Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have both accused Guardiola’s side of mastering the dark arts but he has denied it has been a deliberate ploy.
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Klopp couldn’t help but throw it back into the mix. “I am not too sure if I want to put oil on the fire, I am not interested in these kind of things,” Klopp said about Guardiola’s comments. “I promise not to mention tactical fouls. That has been maybe already too much, but that has been the only thing I say about it!”
While it’s nowhere near Mourinho vs Wenger or Mourinho vs Guardiola in Spain levels, the comments do put a bit of pressure on referee Michael Oliver. In what has been sure to be an incredible atmosphere, with a home crowd desperate to end a long wait for a first Premier League title, the match official will be expected to be on top of everything.
Every City foul will be expected to result in a yellow card. Every tumble by a Liverpool soccer professional in the penalty area will have to be beyond doubt. If not, the friendly fire may get a touch more heated in the future.