Guardiola meddles his way towards Anfield mauling
Ahead of Wednesday's eagerly anticipated feast of attacking football at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola pledged to stay true to their instincts to dominate and thrill. One of them blinked.
Towards the end of a first half that had long since become an ordeal for his Manchester City, careering towards a bludgeoning 3-0 Champions League quarter-final loss at the hands of Klopp's coruscating Liverpool, Guardiola might have been tempted to simply close his eyes altogether.
A couple of hours earlier, City's team news prompted raised eyebrows as Raheem Sterling dropped to the bench and Ilkay Gundogan came in to bolster a midfield that enjoyed 82 per cent possession in its last outing.
The reasoning was obvious enough - giving the visiting defence enough passing options to break Liverpool's ferocious press - but this felt more like Guardiola the five-times defeated Champions League semi-finalist, rather than two-time winner, second-guessing himself in a major match.
Guardiola and Kevin De Bruyne spoke beforehand, as others from the City camp had previously, of "losing control" in a crazy 10 minutes during January's 4-3 defeat at this ground. Clearly, the former Barcelona boss felt the roots of defeat lay deeper than that. This time around, he has a pile of rubble to sift through.
During the opening exchanges, there appeared some merit in the ploy that saw De Bruyne stationed alongside Fernandinho, a cool head amid the blurring red traffic at the base of the midfield.
Unfathomable as it seems now, Liverpool scarcely threatened before their own player-of-the-year frontrunner broke the deadlock after 11 minutes.
14 - Liverpool haven't lost a home match in European competition since October 2014 (0-3 vs Real Madrid) and are now unbeaten in 14 European games at Anfield (W9 D5 L0). Paradise. pic.twitter.com/4B1pz9eW7K-- OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 4, 2018
Mohamed Salah's presence anywhere near the ball cranked a bubbling Anfield to boiling point time and again in the first half, with City's backline gripped by the shock and fear that has afflicted so many of their opponents this term.
The Egypt international's menacing presence in the box appeared to persuade City against effectively clearing after Ederson saved from Roberto Firmino, who scrapped to keep the ball alive for Salah to rifle in.
City's overmanned midfield were failing to do two things they simply had to; Aymeric Laporte needed greater protection as he grappled with the twin challenge of playing at left-back and doing so against Salah, while they were not moving the ball at pace.
Liverpool were happy to wait, wait some more and then pounce upon City in possession in front of them. Sadio Mane instigated one such lightning press and Vincent Kompany clumped a wayward pass out towards Kyle Walker. Liverpool emerged with the ball and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain concluded the attack by clattering home deliriously from 25 yards.
If the second goal came from the hosts reading and disrupting any semblance of their opponents' order, the third arrived through disorder as City unravelled entirely.
The clockwork passing patterns that delighted against Everton on the other side of Stanley Park at the weekend were replaced by a group of apparent strangers shovelling the ball wherever they could.
In the grip of such shambles, City centre-back Nicolas Otamendi dribbled into a crowded midfield, lost the ball and looked on as Mane put himself at the front of a queue of players waiting to head home Salah's sumptuous cross.
Virgil van Dijk should have headed a fourth and Guardiola paced his technical area, seemingly looking to the turf for the answers his normally sharp tactical mind had entirely failed to provide.
0 - Manchester City failed to direct a single shot on target in a game for the first time since 26th October 2016 (v Man Utd in the League Cup). Blunt.-- OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 4, 2018
This was the Catalan's most chastening loss since another dreadful about turn preceded Real Madrid clouting his Bayern Munich 4-0 in the second leg of their 2014 semi-final.
On that occasion, he surrendered to the impulse of his dressing room to try and shock Madrid with an all-out attacking 4-2-4 approach. Bayern were ruthlessly picked off.
That season, as in all three of Guardiola's Bundesliga campaigns, the Bavarian giants coasted to the title. City are on the verge of confirming a similar Premier League procession but, if the coronation arrives against Manchester United on Saturday, Klopp's stunning Liverpool have ensured it will come with plenty of the shine knocked off.
Anfield's trembling noise and a mangled team bus were respectively welcome and unwelcome elements; neither of them can be blamed for Europe's most potent attack failing to register a shot on target.
Plaudits will rightly roll Guardiola's way over the coming weeks, but he has arguably become his own worst enemy on Champions League nights like this. The solution might be not to think about it quite so much.