So, Manchester City it is then. Of the 14 possible outcomes that Friday’s Champions League draw could have thrown up, this was the one most Liverpool supporters would have wanted the least.
In the Champions League, you either want the easiest route to the next round or a glamour tie. You also want the second leg at home. Liverpool got none of those things. City are as tough an opponent as there is but the familiarity of playing them twice a year and the close proximity of the two cities means there’s nothing exotic or glamorous about it. Furthermore, the second leg will not be played at Anfield.
Sevilla or Roma would have been the least difficult opponent, while Barcelona or Real Madrid would have been the most mouth-watering. Instead of jetting off to warmer climes and visiting a beautiful city, Liverpool fans will travel half an hour up the M62 to the all-too-familiar, rainy old Manchester.
It isn’t a great draw for Manchester City, either, for similar reasons. Chances are they’ll be just as disappointed by the outcome as Liverpool are, but at least they have the consolation of being at home for the second leg. For both teams though, this might be the most difficult draw they could have had as well as being the least exciting.
Liverpool may not be the best opponent City could face but their speed and counterpressing style means they might be the most troublesome. The Premier League table shows that City are clearly the better side but when they go head to head, City’s clear superiority is not as evident, particularly when the game is played at Anfield.
City will rightly be favourites to go through, but it is far from being cut and dried. Picking a winner is not easy and much will depend on whether Liverpool can establish a first-leg lead to take to the Etihad.
Additionally, Man City’s attacking nature suits Liverpool far more than the cautious approach of some sides. For example, Kopites would much prefer to face City than neighbours United despite the obvious gulf in quality between the two Manchester clubs. Liverpool’s much-vaunted attack was blunted fairly easily by United’s defensive strategy a week ago. That isn’t something Jurgen Klopp will have to concern himself with when he prepares his team to face City.
While City are as impressive an opponent as Liverpool could have been drawn against, their willingness to attack and Pep Guardiola’s steadfast refusal to compromise his principles can play into Liverpool’s hands, as we saw in the Reds’ 4-3 win at Anfield in January.
But it wasn’t the identity of the opponent that was the biggest disappointment for Reds’ fans. Not having the second leg at home is much more of a concern and that is perhaps City’s biggest advantage.
The league leaders should be positively ecstatic that the second leg will be at the Etihad. Their record at Liverpool is awful at the best of times, but given the Reds’ storied history of magical European nights under the lights at Anfield, the last thing City would have wanted is a trip to Merseyside for a decisive second leg. It will therefore be interesting to see how Liverpool approach the home leg.
It’s difficult to win a tie in the first leg (although the Reds managed it in the last round with a 5-0 win at Porto) but it’s easy to lose it. Liverpool must avoid conceding silly goals at home that would make the second leg that much more difficult, yet their best chance of progression is to throw everything at City in the first leg, establish a lead and then play on the counterattack in the away leg.
For Liverpool to go through, they will almost certainly need to establish a lead from the first leg or at the very least keep a clean sheet to give themselves the possible advantage of going through on away goals should the scores be level after the two games.
The last time the two sides met, Liverpool blew City away in a blistering 10-minute spell in which they scored three times. That is what the Reds are capable of and why opponents are so wary of them. They also conceded two late goals and ended up hanging on desperately. That will give City confidence they can secure a good result to take back to Manchester.
For supporters of the two teams involved, it was the worst possible outcome. For those without a dog in the race, however, this is sure to be the most exciting tie of the round.