Last weekend’s opening round of Premier League fixtures was merely a prologue. The season proper starts at the Etihad on Monday night when Liverpool are the visitors in the first head-to-head between genuine title contenders.
Manchester City and Liverpool were the stories of last season, certainly its memorable closing stages, and though Manuel Pellegrini’s side ended up on top and the manager is in a position to let bygones be bygones – “last season is finished, for us and for Liverpool” – it only takes the slightest of prompts to reopen the rivalry.
The suggestion that the title was lost by Liverpool rather than won by City, for instance, brings out the competitor in Pellegrini, as does any sympathy for Steven Gerrard, whose slip against Chelsea was popularly seen as the turning point in the contest for the championship.
“I don’t think so,” Pellegrini said. “Of course, Gerrard was unlucky in that game, but Liverpool were not unlucky to miss out. When they beat us 3-2 at Anfield and people said they would go on to win the league, I thought we were very unlucky to lose. Liverpool might have been unlucky against Chelsea but they were lucky to win against us.
“We played better than Liverpool in that game, and there were a lot of mistakes from the referee [Mark Clattenburg] that went against us, but we never opened our mouths to complain. I was absolutely sure that they would not go on to win the four games that they needed to win, whereas I was convinced that we could win enough of our remaining games and that is what happened.
“Though we lost at Anfield we never felt the other team was better than us, or deserved to win the title. We felt we should have won the game and it just made us more determined to win the rest. It was a difficult situation for us at the end of last season because we always had one or two games in hand, we were never out in front, but I think coming back in the way we did showed the character and the personality in the team.
“People think it’s just about money but it’s not. You need a strong squad if you are going to challenge for the title, and that costs money, but other teams have spent more than us and still not won. You still have to sign the right players, you still have to perform as a team.
“We have strengthened our squad a little over the summer and I am happy with it. I did not go looking for a striker because we already have four at the club. Other clubs have strengthened too. They want to improve, which is what you would expect, but we want to improve too. We believe we can still get better.”
Liverpool have ploughed the Luis Suárez transfer money into strengthening the entire team, and though interest in Mario Balotelli came too late for the Italian to feature at his former ground, Pellegrini is mostly relieved, as many opponents will be, that the problematic but undeniably talented Uruguayan is no longer a threat to Premier League defences.
“Liverpool are bound to miss him,” Pellegrini said. “Anyone would. It is going to be very difficult to replace a player like Suárez.”
Back in April, Clattenburg’s astonishing leniency towards Suárez was one of the reasons Pellegrini felt hard done by at Anfield, with most City fans feeling the striker was lucky to stay on the pitch. The north-east official is not always so tolerant, as one of Liverpool’s new signings can attest.
Clattenburg was in charge when Benfica played Juventus in last season’s Europa League semi-final, when he showed Lazar Markovic a red card for a scuffle on the sidelines with Mirko Vucinic after the Serbia international had been substituted. Markovic missed the final as a result, a punishment he feels was a little harsh. “Vucinic is my friend, he was having an argument with another player and I was trying to calm the situation down,” he said. “It was a bit of a misunderstanding but I still had to miss the final. We tried an appeal but my friend did not give me much backing.”
The 20-year-old Markovic picked up an injury in pre-season and has hardly been seen in a red shirt since his £20m move, but claims he is now ready to play. A quick, nimble winger who has won titles already with Partizan Belgrade and Benfica, Markovic is aware Liverpool have a midfield full of similarly pacy players – Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho – but says that is what attracted him to the club.
“I saw Liverpool a lot last season and I liked their style of play,” he said. “I have always fancied playing in England and I am happy to be with one of the best clubs around. I might not be the fastest here, but it is always much easier if you have quick players around you.”
Once thought likely to end up at Chelsea – “there was nothing in that, there was never any contact” – Markovic came to England after taking advice from his good friends Stevan Jovetic and Matija Nastasic, both of whom happen to play for Manchester City.
“We have been meeting up in England and we talk on the phone most days,” he said. “But we have not been talking about the game. Maybe we will once it has taken place.”
Markovic’s favourite player is Gianfranco Zola, one reason why he followed Chelsea as a boy and took a keen interest in the Premier League, though the Serbian player he most looks up to is Nemanja Vidic. “Nemanja recommended Benfica and also told me I would like it in England,” he said. “He didn’t tell me to join Liverpool, I decided that for myself. It would have been lovely to play for the same club at the same time, but I guess it wasn’t to be.”