If Sunday’s League Cup final at Wembley can be viewed as the beginning of the end for outgoing Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, the match marks the end of the beginning for his Liverpool counterpart Jurgen Klopp.
As Pep Guardiola waits in the wings, Pellegrini’s City remain in the Premier League title hunt, despite consecutive home losses to top two Leicester City and Tottenham, and are poised to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League following a timely return to form at Dynamo Kiev in midweek.
Overcome Liverpool and City can push on for further honours in the competitions prioritised by their owners, in the hope of giving Pellegrini a golden farewell. Lose and the fragile confidence they impressively pieced back together in the Ukrainian capital might be shattered beyond repair.
If he lifts the League Cup, Klopp will emulate Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho by claiming the trophy in his first season in English football.
Mourinho and Pellegrini built on those triumphs by winning the 2004-05 and 2013-14 Premier League crowns but it would require a leap of the imagination beyond this most improbable of title races to envisage Klopp’s Liverpool doing the same, lying as they do 15 points back from Leicester in eighth.
It is easy to forget the sense of boundless possibilities following Liverpool’s supreme 4-1 destruction of City at the Etihad in November. Klopp’s gegenpressing methods appeared to have coalesce perfectly with his Anfield squad and the scoreline flattered their out-played, out-thought and out-fought hosts.
The match should be a cautionary, if not haunting tale for City, but Klopp has since endured a harsh lesson in the realities of English’s football’s hectic winter period. He might courteously offer a gentle warning to his old Bundesliga sparring partner, Guardiola.
Since beating City, Liverpool have won five of 13 Premier League matches, with the 6-0 Valentine’s Day massacring of a hapless Aston Villa their only triumph during this period by more than a single goal.
Klopp’s infectious joviality was in short supply when his heavy metal football was confronted by Tony Pulis’ more screamcore take on direct play and West Brom left Anfield with a 2-2 draw in December. It has been a trying and injury laden time with which Pellegrini can sympathise.
Amid fitness woes, the City boss named a team featuring five full-debutants in the FA Cup at Chelsea last weekend. The lambs were promptly slaughtered 5-1 but Pellegrini stuck to his guns, claiming his senior players needed to be protected in a stance pitched somewhere between tenacity and petulance.
The Kiev result vindicated Pellegrini to a point and Klopp will recognise an alternative version of the 62-year-old dubbed “This Charming Man” by the City faithful.
“There was, in effect, no referee on the pitch in the last seven or eight minutes of the match and in such a situation the home team has an advantage,” Pellegrini said after a disputed last-gasp Champions League quarter-final loss to Klopp’s Dortmund in 2013. Shirking on understatement, he suggested the result was “an absolute atrocity”.
For both men, their carefully cultivated and contrasting public personas are of secondary importance to their reputations as winners – reputations at stake on Sunday.
Klopp’s ambitions to start a dynasty at Liverpool would be greatly helped by collecting an early piece of silverware. He would stand apart from the coaches – Brendan Rodgers’ 2013-14 title tilt aside – who have returned Premier League finishes between sixth and eighth since 2009-10.
Since the Guardiola announcement, Pellegrini has been linked to prime jobs at Chelsea and Juventus, but no amount of good manners should keep him at football’s top table if he rounds off his City tenure with two trophyless campaigns.
For their futures with and without their respective clubs, victory on Sunday for Klopp and Pellegrini is paramount. Expect the masks to slip again.
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