Pep Guardiola’s comments about Sadio Mane “sometimes” diving were those of an overly emotional and worried man who is realising that as with last season, Liverpool are not going to go away. Manchester City just about edged them to the Premier League title last season but having to do it again seems to be affecting the usually calm Spaniard.
Guardiola was asked how aware he was of what was unfolding at Villa Park, as Liverpool scored two late goals to snatch a hugely important 2-1 victory over Aston Villa and another maximum points. His response was perhaps not overly controversial, saying, “Sometimes it is diving, sometimes it is this talent to score incredible goals in the last minute. It is a talent. So, when it’s one time, two times ‘we were lucky, we were lucky’. What happens in the last two seasons many, many times is they have the special character to do that.”
Exclude that word “diving” and there is a compliment in there somewhere. However, Guardiola did say “diving” and even if he did not specifically refer to Mané – as pointed out by Jürgen Klopp – the accusation was aimed at the Senegalese forward and, by implication, other Liverpool players.
As if Anfield needed any provocation ahead of Sunday’s top of the table clash, but City’s manager has poked at it whilst using the most basic of tactics – trying to put pressure on the decisions of the referee and VAR by accusing the opposition of cheating.
It is a big accusation, but Guardiola knows that Liverpool have won their last two, very hard-fought league games at home, with penalties that were earnt for fouls on Mané. The “diving” comment has now set the agenda, but if it fires up the opposition and the supporters, it could prove to be a big mistake.
Maybe starting a war of words would have been more effective from Guardiola if the upcoming fixture was being played at City, instead the comments come before a game at a ground that he is yet to win at and where City have not won since 2003. On four occasions Guardiola has come away from Anfield without victory, which has not happened to him at any other ground.
That record includes the 3-0 Champions League quarter-final defeat which was the key moment in heightening the rivalry between the two clubs. But this rivalry has the added edge that it is between two managers and teams who want to play exciting, attacking and free-scoring modern football, which is driving them both to greater heights.
Guardiola’s “diving” remark does feel significant; the first time one of these great managers has over-stepped the mark on the respect scale and it is a sign that the pressure is getting to him. So fine are the margins, one word shows that.
The atmosphere is set to be red hot for a fixture and result that will go a long way to deciding where the title is heading this season. When was the last time a game so early in the season had so much riding on it?