Raheem Sterling’s confrontation with his England team-mate Joe Gomez on Monday was the latest example of bad blood between the league’s best two teams
“Raheem explained that for a very brief moment his emotions ran over. It would be correct to say that that was not the same for Joe.” With those words, and perhaps unintentionally, Gareth Southgate managed to sum up the latest instalment of the Liverpool-Manchester City rivalry pretty perfectly on Tuesday afternoon.
The England manager has been thrust into the centre of it after one of his star men, Raheem Sterling, chose to verbally and physically confront Joe Gomez in front of stunned team-mates in the players’ canteen at St George’s Park on Monday afternoon.
Sterling’s temper outburst means he will miss England’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Montenegro on Thursday. Gomez, who suffered a minor scratch to his face in the incident, will be available.
The Liverpool man, according to sources within the camp, should be praised for his maturity and restraint. Maybe he really is “the big man”, as Sterling suggested. Certainly the bigger one.
Sterling insisted in an Instagram post on Monday evening that “me and Joe are good”, but his angry reactions to Gomez, on and off the field, simply confirm what plenty have suspected for a while: the Premier League has a new inter-city rivalry, and one in which the bitterness is growing.
Liverpool’s win over Manchester City at Anfield on Sunday sent Jurgen Klopp’s team eight points clear at the top of the table, and sent Pep Guardiola into a tailspin. The City boss ensured meme fans were kept entertained with his animated protests to the match officials.
The phrases “thank you so, so much” and “twice, twice, twiiiiiiiiiiice!” will follow the Catalan around for some time, one suspects.
Guardiola is no stranger to this kind of rivalry, having managed Barcelona at a time when Jose Mourinho was at his devilish best, or worst, depending on your allegiance.
Mourinho, as Real Madrid boss, seemed to make it his mission to get under Guardiola’s skin. By the time Guardiola left Camp Nou in 2012, plenty believed Mourinho had achieved his goal. Real were champions, while Barcelona were looking for a new manager.
Liverpool-City cannot yet be compared to that feud, of course, and one hopes the pettiness doesn’t reach the level it did between Barca and Real between 2010 and 2012, when Clasico fixtures tended to resemble a 90-minute playground scrap.
Who will ever forget Mourinho’s cowardly eye-gouge on the late Tito Vilanova, or some of the theatrics of Pepe, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets? Even Iker Casillas and Xavi, the kings of the all-conquering Spanish national team, lost their cool in that period.
Thankfully, we have not seen those kinds of scenes here.
Klopp may be passionate and wholehearted, but he is no Mourinho, and his reluctance to play ‘mind games’ with Guardiola has been clear to see. Last week’s comments about City’s “tactical fouls” were about as salty as the Liverpool boss got, despite seeing one of his players labelled a diver by his opposite number.
Instead, the enmity seems to be coming from the Etihad, where there is a genuine belief that Liverpool receive favourable treatment not only from the media, but from the Premier League and its referees too.
According to one source, their annoyance is beginning to border on obsession. Resentment lingers, understandably, from City’s visit to Anfield in the Champions League in 2018, when the visitors’ team coach was attacked and damaged by home fans outside the ground.
“Thank you so much for protecting us,” Guardiola told police and stewards that night, with trademark sarcasm. He and his staff have not forgotten that night. And they certainly revelled in beating the Reds to the Premier League title back in May.
On social media, a video circulated showing City staff and players singing a version of ‘Allez Allez Allez’, the song which has become synonymous with Liverpool’s European adventures.
In this instance, the lyrics had been changed to reference Reds fans being “battered in the streets”, lauded Vincent Kompany for “injuring” Mohamed Salah and laughed that “the Scousers won f*** all.”
City issued a statement denying suggestions that “battered in the streets” referred to Sean Cox, the Liverpool fan left fighting for his life after being attacked before the Champions League semi-final against Roma in 2018, but it is significant that there was no apology after what was a pretty unsavoury incident.
Cox, incidentally, was well enough to attend Sunday’s game – his first at Anfield since the attack. His fight goes on. So does the battle, on the field, between Liverpool and City.
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They are by far the best two teams in England, probably the best in Europe too. They have broken record after record, provided memorable moment after memorable moment. Games between the sides are fraught, tense and usually high on quality.
Between the players, and the two managers, there is respect and it is genuine. Klopp says Guardiola is the best manager in the world, Guardiola says Liverpool are the world’s best team. Salah and Kevin De Bruyne are friends, as are Fernandinho, Roberto Firmino, Fabinho, Alisson Becker, Gabriel Jesus and Ederson, who regularly share a private jet when heading for international duty with Brazil.
Until Sterling’s ill-advised kick-off, the rivalry has stayed where it belongs; on the field. Whether that can last remains to be seen.
As we have seen before with Manchester United and Arsenal, as the stakes get higher so the ill-feeling grows. This is a different era, but Liverpool and City are in each others’ way, and inevitably that means tempers will fray, that things will be said and that situations like Monday’s will arise.
This season, Liverpool seem to be handling things better. It was they who kept cool heads on Sunday, while City’s players followed their manager’s lead. As Guardiola fumed, so too did Sterling, De Bruyne, Kyle Walker and Sergio Aguero.
Sterling’s rage, we now know, spilled over into a second day. It’s cost him an England cap, and showed the rest of the world what Liverpool fans have been saying for a while. They’re under City’s skin. And the weekend’s evidence suggests they are there to stay.