Liverpool Edges City is a Game of Early Goals and Controlled Risks

LONDON – In the lone corner of Wembley bathed in bright sunshine, Kevin De Bruyne shuttle up and down. She stretched her contours and calves. He made sure his ankles were nice and loose, and then, with great time and care, made sure that his ankles were tight. He wanted everything to feel right when the call came.

He never did. With Manchester City falling behind by two goals for Liverpool, with his place in the FA Cup final and his ambitions of completing domestic and European treble slipping away, City manager Pep Guardiola did not call for South Bruyne, his outstanding playboy. The Belgian spent a few minutes in the sunshine, alternately staring between the game unfolding before him and Guardiola, and then returned to his seat in the shade.

Whether De Bruyne knew it or not, Guardiola never considered anything else. He would have preferred, of course, to throw De Bruyne into the fray — or, indeed, get him on the field from the start — but he felt, frankly, he couldn’t.

De Bruyne suffered a four-inch foot shot in City’s Champions League game against Atlético Madrid on Wednesday. He had been stitched closed before he returned to England, and had been prescribed a course of antibiotics to prevent infection. He was starting to get better. However, submitting it to a game three days later would risk reopening the wound. “Then we would lose it for more games,” said Guardiola. “Finally, I didn’t want to take that risk.”

Unsurprisingly, Guardiola was somewhat cozy about exactly why De Bruyne was sent to the flank to warm up, given that he clearly had no intention of allowing him into the game .

It may be a psychological trick for his fellow players, a little boost as they try to build on Jack Grealish’s second-half goal and further reduce the three-goal lead Liverpool had established in a dominant first half. Or maybe it’s a bit embarrassing for Guardiola’s Liverpool colleague Jürgen Klopp to be compelled to consider what he could do if De Bruyne, arguably the most creative player in English football, steps into the row suddenly.

Either way, the fact that De Bruyne was reduced to playing a purely hypothetical threat role summed up the biggest challenge these teams will face over the next six weeks.

Both swept to the threshold of not only glory but multiple ones of it – City still hopeful of winning the Premier League and the Champions League, Liverpool now arguing to complete a series of four available trophies – by the ability of their players and the brilliance of their coaches, by virtue of being not only the most talented, but the most intense, the most intelligent and the most diligent.

What develops between now and the end of the season, though, will depend as much on endurance as ability. The line between absolute success and relative failure is as much a war of attrition as a tiresome battle. What will define who wins the Premier League and, potentially, the Champions League is not which of them can ascend the highest, but which of them runs the deepest.

That’s especially true of teams that find themselves competing on many fronts. Guardiola and Klopp both take great pains to stress that looking too far forward can only lead to ruin, that allowing thoughts to slip into the theoretical can only distract from the concrete and the concrete.

But every lineup option, for both, between now and the end of the season must take into account not only the task involved but the challenges ahead.

Guardiola, in Wembley, named De Bruyne as a substitute even though he knew he wouldn’t play. He was joined there by Ilkay Gundogan and Aymeric Laporte, both in the same boat, dropped out of this match so they are more likely to be available for the next, against Brighton in the Premier League, or that they were not reducing their chances of playing in the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid in 10 days.

Strange as it may seem, for a team that has spent about a decade building one of the two most expensive squads ever – a team that includes the most expensive player in British history among its substitutes – City’s list available players aren’t particularly “long,” as Guardiola said, these days.

“It’s fine when everyone’s fit,” he said. The subtext, of course, was that this wasn’t when injuries and fatigue came in. While Guardiola prefers a high quality, concentrated squad for a club of City’s long-term vision — not to mention its unrivaled resources — that’s more than anything. little surprise; it is hard to imagine that the situation will not be revised in the summer transfer window.

Klopp took the opposite approach. The Liverpool squad, reinforced by the arrival of Luis Díaz in January and somewhat worried by injury in recent months, is ready these days to offer some of his key figures against Benfica a break in the Champions League last week – Guardiola was denied privilege, facing a tough battle with Atlético Madrid – and is still moving forward. That, in turn, allowed him to name a full-strength team at Wembley on Saturday, a fact that was likely to be a decisive factor.

The advantage, of course, is that Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and the rest have only 72 hours before facing Manchester United in the Premier League, with the Merseyside defeat of Everton remaining on the horizon beyond. Their legs will be a little more tired for those games because of their efforts against City.

Klopp, in that sense, took as much risk as Guardiola; sticking is not a gamble less than a spin, after all. That’s the position that both coaches, and both teams, find themselves in: weighing risk and reward, hoping they call it right, knowing everything is on the line.

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