Liverpool's rivals in Manchester were always United but it will soon be City
There is a shift happening in the north west. It is not just the balance of power in the Premier League that has altered. Manchester City have changed the landscape of the domestic game and they're also beginning to redefine the rivalries in English football, too.
The great Manchester-Merseyside duels have traditionally been contested by United and Liverpool. It is arguably the most dramatic matchup of the season even if it frequently produces dull games. At Anfield, however, attention is shifting away from Old Trafford towards the Etihad. City are not just the team to beat; they're also the club setting the standards off the pitch. When the sides meet in front of the Kop on Sunday, the packed crowd will witness another episode of a showdown that is becoming more intense by the year.
This has been City's decade. Anfield has struggled to match their progression. It is a scenario that John W. Henry, Liverpool's principal owner, foresaw and feared when he took control of the club eight years ago. In one of his first public statements, Henry made a clear allusion to City when discussing the challenge of keeping his new team financially competitive. "I do not have Sheikh in front of my name," he said.
City, of course, are owned by Sheikh Mansour, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family. The investment from the Middle East has transformed City from Manchester United's struggling neighbours into the most powerful force in England. This has caused resentment among the game's traditional powerhouses but it is simplistic to believe that City's progression, and the growing rivalry with Liverpool, is all about cash.
Almost a decade into the "project" in east Manchester, there are clear signs that the club's planning has produced a successful outcome. Not only have City spent well in the transfer market but the creation of the Etihad Campus has allowed them to build an impressive academy system that is beginning to produce graduates capable of playing for the first team. The entire set-up was designed to entice the world's best players and managers, with Pep Guardiola's arrival two years ago showing that the policy is working.
City are extending their reach, too, with a worldwide network of clubs that bear their name. A framework is being built to create global domination. And it is happening on Liverpool's doorstep.
Overall, there is a mixture of admiration and exasperation towards City from Anfield. The teams are competing for the same young players and the Etihad's aggressive youth recruitment policy has irked Liverpool. City's spending power is a source of envy and animosity. The clubs are allies in the ongoing attempt by the "Big Six" to restructure the finances of the Premier League -- most notably by changing the way overseas TV rights are allotted -- and Henry admires and respects Ferran Soriano, the Etihad's chief executive. Yet Liverpool understand that City present the biggest threat to their ambitions.
On the terraces, United are the team to beat but in the boardroom, City are the targets.
Liverpool's planning has been haphazard over the years of Henry's ownership. The strategy has been vague and subject to sudden changes of tack, while City have worked to much clearer objectives.
Transactions in the transfer window illustrate this. Last summer, Henry and his Fenway Sports Group consortium were determined to keep Philippe Coutinho at Anfield, even going to the lengths of issuing a statement that the Brazil international would not be allowed to leave. Days into the January window, Coutinho was off to Barcelona for a package that could be worth £142 million. There was no obvious replacement lined up when the deal was completed and the decision was down to Jurgen Klopp. If there is a masterplan at work, there is little evidence of its genius.
Liverpool's response has been to approach Red Bull Leipzig in an attempt to bring Naby Keita to Anfield earlier than agreed. They paid £54 million for the midfielder last summer while allowing him to stay in Germany for an extra season. To do this, they will have to pay another premium of up to £18m. Many sneered when City bought Kyle Walker from Tottenham Hotspur for £50m last year, saying that Guardiola had overpaid for the wing-back. Walker has been a very useful addition to the City team and has been an impressive cog in the side's dominant first half of the season. Liverpool, by contrast, are trying to overpay by installment for a man who was expensive anyway and has not yet kicked a ball for the club.
Klopp is arguably second only to Guardiola in terms of glamour and pulling power for potential recruits. This is one area where Liverpool have shown long-term thinking, signing the former Dortmund manager up until 2022. The 50-year-old has built a side that is almost as dynamic and exciting going forward as the Catalan's team. With United under-performing, Chelsea moving through another period of uncertainty over Antonio Conte's future, Spurs still suffering growing pains and Arsenal directionless, Liverpool have the opportunity to put some pressure on City. Yet they still lag a long way behind Guardiola's side.
On Sunday, the hosts need to make a statement at Anfield. Even though their other top-six rivals will retool and present strong opposition to Klopp's side over the coming seasons, Liverpool see themselves as the team to challenge the Etihad's dominance in the medium-term. The rivalry will grow but only if Klopp can land a blow on City.
United may always be considered the traditional enemy from Manchester by Liverpudlians, but they know behind closed doors at Anfield that City have become the team to beat. Both now and in the future.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.