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Liverpool-Man City, the last Klopp-Pep duel, yields an EPL title race for the ages

Liverpool-Man City, the last Klopp-Pep duel, yields an EPL title race for the ages

It was chaotic. Stressful. Less tactical, more heavy-metal. Liverpool vs. Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp vs. Pep Guardiola, perhaps the Last Dance, was riveting. It had just about everything, from City panic to clattered posts, from basketball-esque goals to bickering — everything, except a winner.

And so, it yielded a Premier League title race for the ages.

It ended Liverpool 1, Man City 1 — and Arsenal 64, Liverpool 64, Man City 63, with 10 utterly alluring games to go.

And in every sense, it was fitting.

This, Pep vs. Klopp, the Messi vs. Ronaldo of managerial rivalries, has defined the contemporary Premier League. It has delivered the drama, and shaped the tactics, and elevated the entire EPL from competitive-but-lacking to best-in-class. It pushed and sculpted both visionary leaders. Guardiola is “the outstanding manager of my lifetime,” Klopp said this week. Klopp is the “the best rival I ever had in my life,” Guardiola said this winter. “His teams helped me to be a better manager.”

“Helped,” past tense, because Klopp is leaving soon. He announced in January that he’ll step down at season’s end. He’ll depart without concrete future plans, only with a promise that he’ll never coach an English club other than Liverpool.

Sunday, therefore, felt like the end of an era, perhaps the last meeting between these two masterminds. It teased finality. Scriptwriters begged for a decisive conclusion.

Instead, they got 100 back-and-forth minutes — and, at the final whistle, claps, hugs, mutual respect and bittersweet satisfaction.

“They are an incredible team,” Guardiola said afterward.

On paper, he and Man City had the firepower; but in the end, they were pleased to escape with a point.

They controlled the game’s first 15 minutes, and really should have gone ahead. They finally did halfway through the first half, with a bit of off-the-training-ground brilliance, and a pick-play stolen from the NBA.

On Saturday, they’d rehearsed a set-piece routine rooted in conceptual misdirection. On Sunday, they executed it with precision. Kevin De Bruyne stood over a right-sided corner. “You think of an outswinging ball, you think it’s gonna land near the penalty area,” Man City center back John Stones explained. Instead, City’s Nathan Ake set a subtle screen on Liverpool’s near-post defender; Stones snuck into unoccupied space; De Bruyne fizzed a low ball into that space, and Stones flicked it with his foot past Liverpool keeper Caoimhin Kelleher.

As a gray Anfield evening darkened, though, City lost the control to which they’re so accustomed.

For over a decade now, Klopp vs. Pep has been a stylistic clash, namely a tug of war between chaos and control. And their last duel tilted toward chaos. Liverpool, always under-resourced in the rivalry and now undermanned, depleted by injuries, bellied up to the City beast. Its retooled midfield and heroic, boyish reserves grabbed the game in classic Klopp fashion.

They pressed and pressured City, pinning the champions back into an increasingly claustrophobic defensive half. At halftime and full-time, they finished with more passes and more possession — and more passion.

They equalized on 50 minutes. Ederson compounded Ake’s mistake, an underhit back-pass. The City goalkeeper cleaned out Darwin Nuñez, and conceded a penalty, which Alexis Mac Allister converted.

From there, the Reds rose. Luis Diaz should have scored, perhaps twice. Liverpool defenders pounced on every one of City’s line-skipping passes. Their superiority was semi-stunning.

“I saw so many sensational performances today,” Klopp said postgame. “I don’t know where to start.”

City, meanwhile, soured. De Bruyne and Guardiola feuded when the latter subbed the former after 68 minutes. On the field, frustration morphed into panic. Defenders sliced clearances. It wasn’t until the 75th minute that City finally enjoyed an extended spell of second-half possession.

They were rattled, because Liverpool had rattled them. They were still dangerous, and Jeremy Doku rattled the Liverpool goal frame with two minutes plus stoppage time to go. But they “couldn’t get a rhythm, couldn’t find the pockets … which is what we’re used to doing,” Stones said.

So they settled, happily, for a draw — and a foothold in this unparalleled title race.

Liverpool’s manager Jurgen Klopp, left, hugs Manchester City’s head coach Pep Guardiola after the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and Manchester City, at Anfield stadium in Liverpool, England, Sunday, March 10, 2024. The match ended 1-1. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

The Premier League is no stranger to thrilling stretch runs. Klopp’s Liverpool and Pep’s City have twice gone to the wire separated by a single point. But rarely have three teams duked it out. And never before have the three teams been this good.

Klopp’s Liverpool and City’s Guardiola are already responsible for the four highest point totals in Premier League history. They won’t quite hit those heights in 2024, but they and Arsenal are all on an 85-plus-point pace. All three would be on track to win the league in 11 of the Prem’s 31 seasons; and a dozen other 21st-century champions would be in their range.

And all three are accelerating. Neither Arsenal nor City has lost a league game since December. Liverpool has lost just once since September — to Arsenal last month.

City entered Sunday as the betting favorite. But for the first time since Guardiola’s maiden season, they have neither the best goal difference nor the best Expected Goal difference in England. They are excellent but imperfect, and vulnerable, as Aston Villa showed in December, as Liverpool proved once again on Sunday.

They will enter the March international break in unfamiliar territory: third place.

They will emerge from it faced with another titanic clash March 31 against Arsenal and Guardiola’s former understudy, Mikel Arteta, who outmaneuvered the grandmaster back in October.

For the first time since Guardiola’s masterful run began — for the first time since the first of five titles in six years — he and City have two legitimate challengers, the “best rival” and the protégé.

And they have ten springtime weekends to write one final chapter — or, perhaps, in Arsenal's case, the first of many.

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