Coming back from grueling Champions League games, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola could have taken time to relax, but that’s just not in their nature. That Manchester City Manager was already at the laptop on the way home from Madrid. There was something to be found out.
If there was a feeling that Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final was a game they could have done without – a game against exactly the wrong opponents at the wrong time – it was quickly postponed. Instead, the short build-up sparked enthusiasm among both managers. It reminded them that this is what they live for.
The fact that they have big games in such quick succession makes it all the better because it brings out the best in them.
“You do one thing, they answer with another, you answer differently,” says Guardiola Another way to win, especially when it comes to “series” of monumental games like this one. “The guessing, the switching, the setup, the mid-game switching; guessing what formation they will play, as well as how we can surprise them: that makes everything enjoyable, which makes everything make sense.”
This is exactly what elite trainers crave: the cutting and thrusting, the most intense circumstances for their ingenuity. This is perhaps all the more acute as Saturday’s circumstances are quite rare.
It is only the fourth time since the Second World War that the top two in the league have met in an FA Cup semi-final. The competition may not mean as much as it does to some of them, and the occasion obviously doesn’t mean as much as the final, but that makes it almost more complicated.
That’s because such an occasion comes at a more tense part of the season, surrounded by so many important games. Based on that preparation alone, Klopp has already complained about the timing of a crucial league game with Newcastle United between games of the Champions League semi-final against Villarreal. But that, too, is more important than usual. It could even come to the ultimate showdown between City and Liverpool in the Champions League final. The prospect only adds weight and complications to Saturday’s game.
While an event like the Champions League would be something everyone put their hearts into, that’s not quite the case with the FA Cup semi-finals. It’s both about what you can give away and what you can win.
That’s why some stakeholders are calling the more low-key final half-hour of Sunday’s Premier League game a “non-aggression pact”. Both were aware of the greater conflicts to come.
Saturday doesn’t allow that.
It has to end with the day and thus becomes an end in itself.
This was also shown in similar encounters in the past, the circumstances of which are revealing for Saturday.
The most recent of these isn’t really an example, mind you. Tottenham Hotspur were second behind Chelsea in 2016/17 but the latter had already stormed away at the top. The 4-2 semi-final win just showed that this is a wealthier club with a better squad.
However, these concerns were absent in the 1964–65 semi-final between Manchester United and Leeds United. It was pure hostility, of the rawest kind.
The review of this game is humorous given last week’s commentary. Players would certainly consider some of Arsenal-United’s 1997-2005 antics to be ‘handbags’.
Not even Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira reached the depths of the first semi-final in 1965, a 0-0 draw at Hillsborough. It has gone down in history as one of the most aggressive games of a nearly lawless football era.
Jonathan Wilson’s new book on the Charltons, Two Brothers, describes it as “a pathetic, raspy affair, so violent that a media outlet used the side furniture usually reserved for boxing, and his article on the game with “a big fight report” overwrote. As Bobby Charlton walked towards the goal in a moment, he heard a voice from behind. “Smack the little bastard!” It was his brother.
Jack Charlton and Dennis Law ended up having an argument, with the latter having his shirt ripped off his back. Behind them all, Paddy Crerand, Nobby Stiles, John Giles, Norman Hunter, Billy Bremner and most notably Bobby Collins were more than willing to mix it up. Eamon Dunphys A strange kind of fame describes Collins as ‘England’s most feared midfielder’, a wonderful footballer but ‘with a touch of malice in his soul’.
Somehow only two players were booked. The media reaction was furious. The repetition was all the more exciting. Leeds won 1-0 through Bremner and were seen as having that psychological advantage.
“We were devastated,” Stiles told Dunphy. “We went to Blackburn three days after the semi-final. I’ve always wanted to play, but that day I didn’t have the heart… I remember walking onto the pitch before the game and thinking the whole season could be over today.”
It didn’t work that way. One of the world-class players from the vintage that elevates this type of team inspired the win.
“Bobby [Charlton] was the one,” Stiles said. “His Spirit lifted us up.”
Kevin De Bruyne’s potential absence could play out in a similar way and even save him for the bigger challenges ahead.
United developed a determination from the situation that saw them win all of their remaining league games until the title itself was secured. One of those wins was over Leeds and it was almost as if Don Revie’s side had expended too much energy to play United in the Cup and lost their lead. On the other hand, we already had the big league game between City and Liverpool this year. However, could Saturday influence a possible Champions League final?
That 1965 semi-final certainly provoked a relentless thirst for victory in United that’s more in keeping with the modern game and almost invisible at the time. Six wins in a row was otherworldly stuff. Even champions have blundered a lot, and often badly. Here the defeated semi-finalist was driven to the victorious league champion.
It was different in 1998/99 in the most famous semi-final of all. Compared to 1965, this epic between Arsenal and United now seems more like 2022. It was all about the football.
It certainly had more reflections of the modern game as the sport fully entered a new era. United were chasing a first-ever treble, something both City and Liverpool are now looking to emulate for the first time, with Klopp’s side also aiming for a first treble. That meant Alex Ferguson had to make big decisions, like now – especially for the replay.
All Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole and Ryan Giggs were “rested” to use the Welsh winger’s quotes, with Teddy Sheringham, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Jesper Blomqvist. The fact that such changes still produced such a classic should be kept in mind for Saturday. Neither Guardiola nor Klopp will play full teams but that can’t prevent it from becoming a thoroughbred and thoroughbred encounter.
That became clear in 1999 during an epic night at Villa Park. The narrative beats of the occasion were almost perfect. There was David Beckham’s curled opener, Dennis Bergkamp’s deflected equaliser, Keane’s red card, an Arsenal attack, Peter Schmeichel’s penalty save and then the rousing crescendo of Giggs’ winner.
Everyone at United believes the win was essential to winning the Premier League and Champions League and was an integral part of the treble itself.
Keane called it “a defining moment” and, interestingly, “the kind of validation” that “even Manchester United needed”. Schmeichel opined that a loss would have “stopped the run we were on and then the momentum to win the league”.
“After winning an epic like this,” he says in his autobiography, “we felt unstoppable.”
That meant they stayed just ahead of Arsenal in the title race.
In the excitement of the occasion, however, no one thought about it.
“Winning here and now became an end in itself,” Keane said. The semi-finals might have been about everything else, but at the moment only the purity of the game mattered.
The hope is that Saturday will be similar. Both managers could already feel such a thrill during the preparation.
This could well be the most “dispensable” of the remaining trophies. But it could be precisely because of this that it becomes a pleasure game.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/soccer/other-soccer/history-shows-manchester-city-and-liverpools-greater-targets-could-result-in-them-delivering-an-fa-cup-classic-41556346.html History shows that Manchester City and Liverpool’s bigger goals could see them deliver an FA Cup classic