The forgotten story of Pep Guardiola and Steven Gerrard’s first clash ahead of Villa v Man City – Dominic Farrell

The forgotten story of Pep Guardiola and Steven Gerrard’s first clash ahead of Villa v Man City - Dominic Farrell

During his record-breaking tenure at Manchester City, it is fair to say Pep Guardiola has not always had the happiest times at Anfield.

Whether it was sitting on a bus that had its windows pelted and smashed ahead of the 2018 Champions League quarter-final defeat, or bellowing “TWICE!” into the air after VAR failed to intervene on handball shouts during a Premier League defeat the following year, trips to Liverpool are rarely serene affairs for Pep.

Recent visits – February’s 4-1 win and a stirring 2-2 draw in September – have gone more according to plan, but Guardiola already knew all about tough nights on Merseyside.

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“Decent player, not bad,” he smiled when recalling his midfield opponent from the Liverpool v Barcelona 2001 UEFA Cup semi-final – a certain Steven Gerrard, who he will meet in the dugout for the first time when City travel to face Aston Villa on Wednesday.

“It was the first time I was in Anfield. It was 0-0 at home and 1-0 we lost at Anfield, a penalty.”

Those were Guardiola’s final European matches in a Barcelona shirt and came at an emotional time of upheaval in his career.

In between the goalless first leg at Camp Nou and a return fixture, where Gary McAllister’s spot-kick on the stroke of half-time proved decisive, Guardiola had announced he would severe his career-long association with the Blaugrana at the end of the campaign.

Barcelona’s 1-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield in April 2001 was Pep Guardiola’s final European game for the club.
(Image: Clive Brunskill/ALLSPORT)

“I’m going to see out my career abroad,” he told a press conference at Camp Nou. “It’s not an easy decision to make but after weighing things up I think it’s for the best.”

Barcelona were in a state of flux not dissimilar to the modern day in that period.

Director Lorenzo Serra Ferrer had been installed Louis van Gaal’s unlikely successor at the start of the campaign, although a 3-1 loss to Osasuna the weekend after the defeat at Anfield saw him sacked.

Nevertheless, Gerrard recalls being pitted against a supreme operator, even in those less-than-ideal circumstances.

“I’m the lucky one that’s had the opportunity to compete against him as a player,” he said of Guardiola during his own pre-match briefing on Tuesday.

“He was a fantastic player. You could see clearly that he was a student of a game with the way he played it, the intelligence and awareness he had.”

Steven Gerrard challenges Rivaldo at Camp Nou in April 2001.
(Image: Jamie McDonald/ALLSPORT)

Gerrard was still a month shy of his 21st birthday at that stage and Guardiola is full of admiration for all that he subsequently accomplished for club and country.

“The career of Steven Gerrard speaks for itself,” he said.

“Extraordinary, what a player – an authentic legend in the Premier League and his contribution in English football was massive.”

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Liverpool went on to win the UEFA Cup, again besting Spanish opposition in a remarkable 5-4 win over Alaves, where Gerrard was one of the goalscorers.

Barcelona regrouped from Ferrer’s departure and snatched LaLiga’s fourth and final Champions League qualifying spot in improbable fashion, as Brazil great Rivaldo completed a hat-trick in the 89th-minute with a stunning overhead kick to seal a 3-2 win over fifth-placed Valencia.

As Villa Park crackles with anticipation ahead of kick-off and Jack Grealish’s return on Wednesday, a little more of that drama will feel close at hands for two old rivals reunited two decades on.

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