Manchester City avoid Spanish giants, but Liverpool draw will be no picnic
Put the passports and the sun cream away. Manchester City are heading 35 miles down the road to Liverpool for their next Champions League adventure. No Andalusian sunshine, no snow-capped Bavarian Alps -- it will be the train to Lime Street Station and a familiar walk up the Scotland Road that awaits City's travelling support.
For Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, they got their wish of avoiding Pep Guardiola's City until later in the competition. For Liverpool, it is a different story: Buoyed by the fact they are the only side to beat City in the league this season, they will be disappointed that they now have to face them in European competition.
Taking the two league games between the sides as a guide, there is reason for both sides to have mixed feelings. City will know that on aggregate -- happily, how things work in Europe -- their 4-3 defeat at Anfield and 5-0 thrashing of Liverpool at the Etihad would comfortably have seen City through, had it been a Champions League tie.
However, City's win was mitigated by the early dismissal of Sadio Mane and constituted the biggest sky-blue victory over Liverpool since 1928. It is thus unlikely to be repeated. They will also know that the alarming cave-in at Anfield also looks like a one-off in the context of the season. It represents City's only league defeat this term and contained three unforced errors that were totally atypical of City's play throughout an immaculate campaign so far.
What Liverpool will point out is that these errors were forced in the febrile atmosphere of a ground that City plainly hate to visit. Inexplicably, City's victories on Merseyside are about as frequent as fly-bys from Halley's Comet.
Despite neither side wanting to draw the other, it will be Liverpool who are sighing deepest, however. Having survived further than Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea, the last thing they were hoping for would have been a domestic tie at this stage. That it pitches them against England's best club this season will only serve to deepen the doubts.
It is no coincidence that Andriy Shevchenko, the legendary Ukrainian forward and UEFA's 2018 final ambassador, named City alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid as the three teams to be avoided before the draw in Nyon. City, riding high on the confidence and adrenaline of a Carabao Cup walkover against Arsenal and a soon-to-be-rubber-stamped title win, will approach the tie with the confidence a season full of plaudits brings.
While City might not have wanted to be pitched in with the favourites at this stage, there is also no denying Liverpool would also have been low on the wish list as well. Anfield's atmosphere on European nights is second to none, with City's record there second to just about everyone.
In addition to this, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp's record against Guardiola also stands up confidently to inspection, the German having turned over his counterpart in head-to-head meetings five times in the past, more than any other manager operating at the highest level today.
City's European pedigree is still -- if not in its infancy -- very much a pimply adolescent.
Despite this, City's European past is deep enough to throw up other examples of playing against fellow home-nation sides, with a curious re-entry to continental competition in 2003 after a quarter of a century in the wilderness against the Welsh amateurs of Total Network Solutions and last season's two Champions League ties with Celtic.
Perhaps the most relevant tie to the forthcoming clash with Liverpool, however, occurred way back in 1971. City, the cup holders, faced Chelsea in the semifinals of the European Cup Winners' Cup. Both sides were at the time riding high on the crest of a wave of attacking football, much like City and Liverpool today. In two titanic tussles, Chelsea prevailed thanks to a rash of injuries that ripped the heart out of the City side. With tough fixtures at Everton just before the tie and a Manchester derby sandwiched between the home and away legs, a similarly alarming scenario presents itself for City.
Having trumpeted the Manchester United game as a perfect moment to be crowned champions, can we expect Guardiola to risk his major players halfway through the tie with Liverpool? Maybe he will be tempted to play some of the backup squad in that game and keep his powder dry for the second leg with Liverpool, which -- happily for City -- takes place at the Etihad, where they will know exactly what they have to do to progress.
With the season drifting toward an exciting climax, it was always going to boil down to these kinds of occasions for those still in the hunt for trophies. Whether City advance toward an unprecedented treble or end up with a fantastic double will shortly become clear to us all.
What is certain is the next chapter of the season's story will be invigorating reading.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.