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Friday 20 July 2018

Return leg will tell us if Klopp has changed his methods

HALF-WAY THERE: Liverpool players celebrate their victory over Man City at Anfield on Wednesday night. Photo: PA
HALF-WAY THERE: Liverpool players celebrate their victory over Man City at Anfield on Wednesday night. Photo: PA

I don't know which Liverpool will turn up at the Etihad next week for the second act of a fantastic Champions League quarter-final with Manchester City but I can't wait to find out.

After their remarkable 3-0 win at Anfield, logic tells me that Liverpool should finish the job and move into the semi-finals but my instincts tell me that it will not be as simple as that.

My thoughts before this game were that City would win over the two legs and even at half-time with Liverpool coasting at 3-0, I still thought that City would score and find at least one away goal.

That opinion was formed on the back of many occasions this season and last when Liverpool tormented teams, raced into a big lead and then slowly gave ground at the back before conceding damaging goals.

The Champions League Group game this season when they had a 3-0 lead in Seville and conceded three after the break was on my mind and it has happened too often under Klopp to ignore for such a big match.

Perfect

This time, I watched Liverpool give the perfect display of Jurgen Klopp's vision in a breathtaking first-half which completely blew City away.

Pep Guardiola's best players were awful. Lads like Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Leroy Sané never turned up and worse, defensive doubts much reduced by recent form surfaced once again and with major negative consequences.

You could say that they were all soft goals but that would take away from the sheer relentless power of Liverpool's front three, brilliantly supported by James Milner in midfield.

At half-time, I was thinking that Liverpool could score six if they put their mind to it but something very different and totally unexpected happened. They shut up shop in the second-half and that went against all I thought Klopp believed in.

Logically, he should have told his players to keep piling forward, keep looking for goals and if possible, put City away.

Perversely, I would have agreed with that. If ever there was a time to settle the matter, it was there and then when they had their opponent on the ropes. I would have expected Liverpool to come out after the break with all guns blazing again.

But instead, they withdrew into their own half, put up the shutters and did an excellent job of restricting City to a few chances.

I have to say, I'm confused. Is it possible that Klopp has learned some hard lessons and now understands that to be a top team and one that can win often enough to challenge for the Premier League title, there are moments when defence must be respected?

Or was this a one-off which worked mainly because City just didn't turn up to play and made the task of defending comfortable enough for Liverpool?

It's fascinating stuff and the reason why I'm already looking forward to the second-leg even though we have the Manchester and Mersey derbies to deal with in between.

Liverpool in this form could steamroll Everton at Goodison but the headline of the day will come from Manchester where City can nail down the Premier League title at the Etihad by beating Manchester United.

There is always a chance that the psychological damage inflicted by a battering on Merseyside might carry over but my feeling is that they will be alright. This was one game and City are not top of the league by accident.All Guardiola's big names had a bad night at Anfield but good players will use that as a motivation rather than a crutch and I expect a performance more like what we have come to expect from this team.

I've seen a lot of talk about how Guardiola's stubbornness and his tactical decision not to play Sergio Aguero was at fault for the defeat but I think that's all nonsense. These are the very things that made him a great coach just a week ago when City were winning almost every game.

The incident with the bus before the kick-off should be discounted as an influencing factor as well. That's been happening for decades. I remember the Leeds bus in Naples under a hail of stones and bottles.

Melted

A more plausible explanation would be that Guardiola's younger lads melted in the extraordinary athmosphere inside the ground. Anfield on a night like that is certainly no place for those with nervous disposition.

The big question for next week is now about how Klopp approaches the return leg because I can't see Guardiola trying any tricks. He just needs his players to play and if they do that, they could rattle in a lot of goals.

But if Klopp has become a pragmatic man and is leaning towards a level of balance which I didn't think he was capable of, will that throttle back his "go, go go" mentality to such an extent that City can exploit the possession they will have as a result if Liverpool try to defend their lead?

There have been some hints that Klopp is developing a greater balance in a scattering of clean sheets since the start of February and we will only know over the course of the coming months whether this is coincidence or evidence of change in his thinking.

But I think next Tuesday night will give us a strong indication whether Klopp is becoming Mr Pragmatic or still Mr Go Go Go.

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