Liverpool or Man City facing setback as they bid for greatness

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The path towards a treble — or indeed a quadruple — has never run smoothly. That is why so few football teams have ever achieved the feat.

Now, as Manchester City and Liverpool continue their assaults on something extraordinary, they have hit their first significant bumps in the road.

As the two clubs prepare to meet at Wembley in an FA Cup semi-final on Saturday, it is tempting to view the game as the second in what may yet become a quite thrilling trilogy.

Manchester City and Liverpool faced each other in the Premier League earlier this month

Manchester City and Liverpool faced each other in the Premier League earlier this month

They face each other in the FA Cup, and could play again in the Champions League final

They face each other in the FA Cup, and could play again in the Champions League final

Last Sunday’s Premier League meeting was an uplifting and life-affirming spectacle and both teams are favourites to progress through their Champions League semi-finals to meet in Paris at the end of May. It does not pay to be presumptuous but some prospect that would be, nevertheless. For the respective teams and their managers, however, this afternoon presents clear problems that can only be viewed in isolation of what will be another challenging and mentally exhausting occasion for both.

City were the better side at the Etihad in last Sunday’s draw but Pep Guardiola presented Jurgen Klopp with tactical surprises and selections that he perhaps will not be able to repeat today.

His team have also just come through a bruising evening at Atletico Madrid. Kevin De Bruyne, Kyle Walker and perhaps Phil Foden are unlikely to be available and the emotional and physical fall-out of what happened in Spain may not truly be known until kick-off in London.

Liverpool rested players in their midweek Champions League game against Benfica but still suffered the collateral psychological damage of another evening of quite catastrophic defending.

Man City may still be feeling the effects of their bruising encounter against Atletico Madrid

Man City may still be feeling the effects of their bruising encounter against Atletico Madrid

Meanwhile, Liverpool's defending has been concerning in recent matches

Meanwhile, Liverpool’s defending has been concerning in recent matches

Klopp may wave the issue away in public but he will know what everybody else does, namely that Liverpool’s work out of possession has been deteriorating since the turn of the year.

If the graph continues to trend in this direction, it may well be that the Carabao Cup — claimed on penalties against Chelsea in February — is the only trophy they win this season. These, though, are the challenges of competing on multiple fronts. Excellence brings great teams opportunity but also presents challenges so great it should surprise nobody that it tends to turn hairline cracks into fractures.

Today is particularly important for both clubs because it means only one can emerge with dreams of a genuine treble intact.

Traditionally, the trophies that count are the Premier League, FA Cup and European Cup, now renamed the Champions League. Liverpool came close to winning all three in 1977, only to be denied by Manchester United in the Cup final at Wembley. United did manage it in 1999 and remain the only English club to have done so.

Man United are still the only English team to win the three biggest trophies in the same season

Man United are still the only English team to win the three biggest trophies in the same season

That was a truly great United side — one boasting Schmeichel, Stam, Beckham, Keane, Giggs and Scholes — but even they overcame obstacles at the latter stages that logic continues to tell us should really have flattened them.

In his first autobiography, Sir Alex Ferguson addressed the challenges of playing fixture after fixture during the closing weeks of that season. He thinks it helped United’s players to develop momentum. They were tired, he said, but fuelled by the adrenaline of persistently winning.

Currently, both City and Liverpool know all about that. Both managers demand a style of football that requires lungs as big as bin liners and hearts to match.

Of the last 47 games the two teams have played between them this season, they have lost precisely once each. That is another reason today’s encounter is so fascinating: somebody has to lose, even if it takes a shootout.

Guardiola will be driven by his search for perfection, as he always is. The Spanish coach’s attitude to domestic cup competitions has been exemplary ever since he came to England, and that reflects well on him. But he has won this competition only once, in 2019, and that is known to irritate him.

Gabriel Jesus gave Andrew Robertson plenty of issues at the Etihad Stadium last week

Gabriel Jesus gave Andrew Robertson plenty of issues at the Etihad Stadium last week

Today he must find a new way to dissect Liverpool in Wembley’s wide open spaces. Last weekend’s targeting of Trent Alexander-Arnold and the decision to push Gabriel Jesus high on to Liverpool’s other full back Andrew Robertson was masterly. But Guardiola will probably not be able to do it again without Klopp presenting a counter-plan.

As for Liverpool, they simply must hope for more security. Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara — if it is they — must provide an effective screen for their back four. Equally, Liverpool’s defence must re-establish their understanding of what represents a straight line.

The most startling fact from their 3-3 draw against Benfica on Wednesday was that the Portuguese side — a distant third in their own league — actually had the ball in the Liverpool net five times. Two goals were ruled out for narrow offsides.

So the challenges facing both teams and coaches today are clear. Both know that defeat would remove a central pillar from a shot at indisputable greatness. Somebody, at some point, will fall off the high wire this afternoon.

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