Jurgen Klopp faces crash course in Liverpool's rivalry with Manchester
Manchester: Liverpool's nemesis. Jurgen Klopp is about to get a crash course in the dynamics of a regional rivalry. How he comes out of it will determine the way his first season at Anfield will be judged.
Four of Liverpool's next five matches are against teams from the city Merseyside loves to hate. On Sunday, Klopp's side face Manchester City in the League Cup final. Silverware is at stake. Three days later, they play City again in front of the Kop, a game the Reds must win to maintain any hopes of a top-four spot in the Premier League.
Then, after a trip to south London against Crystal Palace comes the Europa League Round of 16 doubleheader versus Manchester United.
Traditionally, Liverpool's rivalry with United has been sharper. Old enmities cast a shadow over games between the north-west giants. Even when both teams are punching below their weight, they like to land their heaviest blows on each other.
City are different. They are resented for their rapid rise to Premier League power and the erroneous perception that their success is based merely on money. Manuel Pellegrini's side were the beneficiaries of Liverpool's collapse in the final games of 2013-14 season. The pain of handing the title to City two years ago is still palpable at Anfield. It would be exacerbated if they wrest another trophy from Liverpool's grasp at Wembley.
Klopp has to find a way of outmaneuvering City. Perhaps the team's finest performance under the German came a month after he arrived at Merseyside when Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho ripped apart City in a thunderous 4-1 victory at the Etihad. Optimism ran wild on the Kop. Since that November night, there have been a few highs for Klopp, but Liverpool's eighth place in the Premier League is testament to the lack of real improvement at Anfield. At times, the team has looked an even bigger rabble than under Brendan Rodgers. Klopp has had an extended honeymoon period, but questions remain as to why the side are no more organized, nor more inspired, than under his predecessor.
Since his arrival in the English top flight, the 48-year-old has consistently complained about the relentless nature of the fixture list. He has a point. The game-recovery-game cycle does mean that there is less time for coaching, and Rodgers benefited from being out of Europe during the title challenge two years ago. Having a week to prepare for opposition is a huge advantage to any coach.
Klopp has barely had time to catch his breath. Until last week. After the away leg against Augsburg, Liverpool had a free week. There were few signs that the break was used wisely in the second leg against the Bavarian side, but the nervy 1-0 home victory was enough for Liverpool to advance in the Europa League. At Wembley, it will be more obvious whether Klopp's extra work on the training ground has had an effect.
Interestingly, the resounding victory at the Etihad came after the international break in November. While many of Liverpool's squad were away with their national teams, the thinking time afforded to the manager allowed a different type of preparation. Though Klopp would never admit looking beyond Augsburg, it's impossible for him not to have one eye on City.
Liverpool have other advantages. Their Wembley rivals had to endure a long-haul journey to Ukraine, and although the 3-1 victory over Dynamo Kiev was arguably one of the team's best performances this season, it is a trip they could have done without before a cup final. The importance of the League Cup to Pellegrini may even grow on Saturday night. Should Leicester City beat Norwich City at the King Power Stadium earlier in the day, City will be nine points adrift in the title race. Beating Liverpool may become Man City's best hope of a trophy this season.
The spotlight will be on Klopp, though. There is no doubting the feel-good factor that he has brought to Anfield. His pedigree means that everyone from the boardroom to the stands is willing to overlook a winning percentage that is closer to Roy Hodgson's than Bob Paisley's. Liverpool's owners and supporters were already looking toward next season. That is when evidence of real improvement will be demanded from the manager.
Yet when Manchester raises its ugly head, things change. A clean sweep in the four matches will enhance Klopp's status as a Kop hero. A trophy and progression to the Europa League semifinals will have a similar effect. Losing the final and getting knocked out of Europe would be a disaster, though. Defeat is one thing. Being vanquished by Manchester is quite another.
It will be a huge month for Klopp, and victory at Wembley would ease the pressure. Liverpool fans will hope he used his free week well.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC and is former football editor of The Times. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.