When Manchester City played Liverpool on April 10, the dramatic 2-2 draw showed the class of England.
City and Liverpool represent the greatest rivalry in terms of title challengers. This season alone, City and Liverpool show dominance domestically and intercontinentally. In England, the two sides are 12 and 11 points clear of third-place Chelsea. In league play, Manchester City’s points per game is the best in Europe’s top five leagues, while Liverpool’s is third behind Bayern Munich.
On the topic of Europe, both City and Liverpool have the chance to play each other in the Champions League Final, assuming each can get past Spanish opposition in the semis.
This potential for success from both sides sparked debate on how significant the two clubs’ rivalry is. Some even ventured to call it soccer’s greatest rivalry based on the dominance of these two sides over recent seasons.
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Shutting out recency bias, it is not far off. Seldom do soccer fans see two sides from the same country, especially one as competitively diverse as England, compete to be the best on the continent.
That being said, soccer’s greatest rivalries feature more than talent. Drama and emotion are among the most important characteristics for a rivalry.
Also, let us be clear, these are rivalries based more on form than they are history. The Manchester United-Liverpool rivalry or the North London Derby have special historical significance compared to Manchester City and Liverpool. However, history has not seen those pairs quite as dominant at the same time as these two clubs.
Soccer’s greatest rivalries on the pitch
The greatest rivalries that we see in soccer often extend from certain eras. Yes, Manchester United and Liverpool are the two most successful sides in English history. However, Manchester United dominated a struggling Liverpool in the early stages of the Premier League in the 1990s.
For instance, in the first 11 seasons of the Premier League, which started in the 1992/93 season, Manchester United won eight titles. Liverpool could not finish better than third.
That is why these rivalries are specific to a set of years where two teams dominate in multiple competitions.
1) Manchester City vs. Liverpool (2017/18-current)
League play is likely the best mark for success for a team. One of Manchester City and Liverpool will win the Premier League this season. With Manchester City winning three of the last four titles and Liverpool nabbing the missing one, it will be the fifth season in a row that one of these two sides wins the trophy.
In the seasons Manchester City won prior, Liverpool finished fourth, second and third in a COVID-changed season when injuries plagued the Reds. The success of Liverpool to continually finish in the top four speaks to Jurgen Klopp’s success at Anfield. On the other hand, Manchester City’s worst finish under Pep Guardiola is third, which came in his first season, 2016/17.
In Europe, these two sides played in three of the last four Champions League Finals. While European success evades Manchester City, Liverpool’s triumph in 2018/19 did not surprise many people. Now, in 2021/22, these two clubs are the betting favorites to win this season’s Champions League. Interestingly, these two sides are so well-matched, that betting sites have them on identical odds. For example, bet365 gives both sides odds of 5/4.
It is not the fact that these two sides are so balanced that makes this rivalry great. It is the dominance domestically and continentally. Truly, it appears that the only side that can beat Manchester City is Liverpool, and the same applies for any team beating Liverpool. Of course, that is hyperbolic. As the adage goes, any team can win any give day.
Still, rarely do we see two teams have potential to win the treble. Much less do we see those two teams from the same country. That applies to Liverpool and Manchester City as we enter the final weeks of the season.
2) Barcelona vs. Real Madrid (2013/14-2017/18)
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Those two players headlined what were some of El Clásico’s most defining years. One of these two sides won each Champions League, Copa del Rey and LaLiga, with one exception. Atletico Madrid winning the Spanish top flight in 2013/14 by three points over both Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Those achievements are somewhat skewed. Real Madrid won four of the five Champions League titles, while Barcelona won four of the five Copa del Rey titles. Still, it is remarkable that Barcelona and Real Madrid did not play each other once over this span in the Champions League. Both sides did not finish worse than the quarterfinals over this span.
El Clásico is always a dramatic fixture, that is why it is the biggest rivalry in European soccer among the five major leagues. However, this span in the 2010s highlighted some of the best talents in the glorious history of the two clubs. For Barcelona, Lionel Messi linked with Luis Suarez and Neymar against Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal. On the other end, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema attacked Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba. Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro battled in the midfield against players like Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic.
These two were the favorites to win each year in each competition, even if LaLiga is top-heavy compared to the Premier League.
3) Arsenal vs. Manchester United (1995/96-2003/04)
The one thing missing from this rivalry in its prime was European success. Granted, Manchester United won the treble in 1999. However, Arsenal could not break through into the Champions League Final until 2006.
Rather, these two exerted dominance over English competitions. Over this nine-season span, the two clubs racked up all the Premier League titles. Manchester United won six, while the Gunners won three and finished second four times. In the FA Cup, both sides won the oldest trophy in the sport three times.
Looking at the players on each team, Manchester United’s Class of ’92 is one of the most elite set of products from one academy in the history of the sport. On the other hand, Arsenal brought in players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp and Freddie Ljungberg to Highbury.
These are Premier League legends, and for good reason. Arsenal and Manchester United under the guise of Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson changed the complexion of the English top flight. Overall, they raised the bar in the league while developing one of the longest-tenured and most-heated derbies in the sport.
4) Ajax vs. Feyenoord (1968/69-1972/73)
Ajax and Feyenoord won 10-consecutive Eredivisie seasons from 1965 to 1974. More specifically, this five-year span yielded four European Cups and three KNVB Cups.
Feyenoord and Ajax are clearly two giants of Dutch soccer. However, this spell of form featured pioneers of the game out of the country. The most important of those is indisputably Johan Cruyff. The Ajax academy product actually played for Feyenoord to conclude his playing career.
Cruyff delivered Ajax three-consecutive European cups through manager Rinus Michels’s ‘total football’ tactic. Feyenoord, the season before this run of three, used a more traditional game plan to beat Celtic in the 1970 European Cup final.
This stretch of form from both sides allowed Ajax and Feyenoord to bring the Netherlands on to the European stage. Domestically, Feyenoord and Ajax developed one of soccer’s greatest rivalries colloquially known as De Klassieker.
The two sides still dominate today, but not to the extent that reigned over Europe in the 1970s.
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