Towards the end of his media duties in the San Siro, ahead of attempting to secure Champions League progression tonight, Pep Guardiola almost choked on a glass of water at the top table. Coughing away, he leant on his translator for support.
You wonder if that was the first time of the day. A similar incident might well have occurred in his plush city centre apartment before morning training and Manchester City’s subsequent flight to Milan.
Guardiola’s morning routine includes poring over the day’s media and Jurgen Klopp’s spicy retort, full of clear insinuation, must have felt like one of the City manager’s particularly peppery Bloody Marys.
The aspersions cast will have left Guardiola spluttering — just as his own against Liverpool, and specifically Sadio Mane, did to his great rival. Guardiola made it clear that it was not his intention to label Mane a diver in a broadcast interview following their victory over Southampton and Liverpool’s stunning late comeback at Aston Villa.
Klopp had suggested that Guardiola is becoming increasingly obsessed with Liverpool. He also opted to bring up tactical fouling, a stick that a few rivals — including Ole Gunnar Solskjaer — have beaten the Premier League champions with. Guardiola was visibly affronted by that.
‘I didn’t listen to what he said so I don’t know,’ Guardiola (below) said, wanting to defuse an escalating situation ahead of Sunday’s titanic clash at Anfield. Yet he did listen — he is always listening — and added: ‘I don’t put oil in the fire.’
Seven choice words; the fire is not so friendly.
Victory here in Italy, played in one of Europe’s cathedrals rather than Atalanta’s modest 21,300-capacity home, will see City safely through to the knockout stages. The agenda, though, has already hurtled towards the weekend and that is more than partly Guardiola’s doing after his comments on Saturday.
Did it surprise him that Klopp bit back, and did the topics raised in doing so?
‘No. No comment.’
Guardiola attempted to clarify his views on Mane, who won penalties in the 95th minute of a last-gasp win over Leicester and late on at home against Tottenham last month. Both Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino labelled the decisions against their teams as ‘soft’. Klopp maintained the Senegal forward is not a diver.
‘My son and my daughter, all the times when Liverpool win in the last minutes, ask me how lucky they are,’ Guardiola added.
‘I said to them at the time it’s not lucky, what Liverpool have done last season and this season many, many times is because they have this incredible quality and this incredible talent to fight until the end.
‘Against Leicester, it was a penalty it was “wow, like this or like that”. That was the intention for my comment. Far away from my intention to say Sadio is this type of player, because I admire him a lot.
‘For Jurgen it (the Leicester decision) is a penalty, for the referee it was a penalty, for the VAR it was a penalty. I was the wrong guy — or maybe not, I don’t know.
‘So it was a praise for Liverpool, not just about one action. To say it’s lucky again? No. It happens many times at Anfield and away (from home) because they push and they push. That’s why it’s nice to face them and try to compete with them. Hopefully I can clarify everything for Jurgen.’
Clarification might have to work both ways and it has detracted from their respective assignments in Europe. City can claim a fourth victory from four group games this season against Atalanta, who are third in Serie A but have acted as the whipping boys of this group.
Guardiola, who has named teenage midfielder Tommy Doyle in his squad, insisted he is not thinking about shuffling his pack too heavily. Rodri, David Silva and Phil Foden have all been left at home through injury and suspension.
‘I’m worried to qualify as soon as possible,’ Guardiola said. ‘If not tomorrow then the next one. I’m not thinking about rotation. I go game by game. If we get there then that would be incredible, one more year (through). I try to entertain the public.’