First they met on the pitch, and now in the dugout. It will be a moment to make even the most fervent football supporter sit back and reflect. Tonight, two legends, Pep Guardiola and Steven Gerrard, will do battle as Premier League bosses.
It will be their first encounter since their infamous showdown in the 2001 UEFA Cup semi-finals, an occasion which has forever been etched in history.
This is because a picture of a fresh-faced Gerrard trying to give Guardiola a handshake has been dug out of the archives. The latter, having found himself on the losing side, appeared to snub the offer as he walked solemnly off the pitch.
Steven Gerrard starred for Liverpool in their 2001 UEFA Cup semi-final victory over Barcelona
Pep Guardiola (right) played in both legs, his final European ties for Barcelona before he left
There was no real tension between them, though. No, this was simply a disappointed player heading for the exit door at Barcelona expressing his sheer dismay at the result. Gerrard may have been too eager, but there is no bad blood between them.
‘Decent player, not bad,’ Guardiola said of Gerrard, who will lead his Aston Villa team into battle against Manchester City this evening. He delivered his remarks with a wry smile on his face, casting his mind back to the tie 20 years ago.
‘It was the first time I was in Anfield. It was 0-0 at home and 1-0 we lost at Anfield, a penalty.’
Now the manager at Manchester City, Guardiola’s players will take on Gerrard’s Aston Villa
Gary McAllister (left) scored the decisive, tie-clinching goal from the penalty spot at Anfield
He then went on to add: ‘The career from Steven Gerrard speaks for itself, it was extraordinary. What a player, fantastic.
‘An authentic legend in the Premier League and of course [for] Liverpool fans. His contribution to English football was massive.’
Glowing praise for his former midfield opponent, indeed. However, the respect between both tacticians is likely to be stripped away at kick-off, especially in light of what is on the line. Villa are in superb form, but City are pushing for the title again.
Something will have to give, and Gerrard will look to summon back the spirit shown by the Liverpool side in 2001 as he goes in search of a third consecutive victory. On that day, the Reds defended heroically and took their chance from the penalty spot.
Guardiola and Patrick Kluivert were left infuriated after the referee gave a penalty for handball
For Guardiola, the two legs were his last European matches for Barcelona. They came at a time of change for the all-time great ahead of his departure, meaning his crestfallen reaction at the final whistle was more than understandable.
Between the goalless first fixture at the Nou Camp and the crunch decider, the now 50-year-old announced that he would bring an end to his career-long stay at the club and head overseas instead to finish off his decorated career.
‘I’m going to see out my career abroad,’ he told a press conference. ‘It’s not an easy decision to make but after weighing things up I think it’s for the best.’
In a similar situation to now, Barcelona are in a state of upheaval. Despite holding a directorial role after arriving in Catalonia, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer was unveiled as Louis van Gaal’s surprise successor – but was axed soon after the loss at Anfield.
Gerrard has enjoyed a superb start to life at Villa, having won both of his matches in charge
But despite this, Barcelona’s team was still crammed full of supreme talents, with Guardiola among them. In goal was Pepe Reina, who was then 18 years of age and nervous. He flapped at a Gary McAllister corner early on, setting the tone aptly.
He was much more assured when rushing out to the feet of Michael Owen, however, as Liverpool continued to create chances. Shortly after, Reina’s opposite number, Sander Westerveld, was forced to be alert to tip Rivaldo’s thunderbolt shot away.
Marc Overmars, formerly of Arsenal, was a constant threat, too. He embarked on a tricky dribble through several red-clad bodies and teed up Luis Enrique, who would go on to manage the club. Unfortunately for him, he could only screw off target.
And he was made to pay in agonising fashion when the hosts, roared on by the frenzied Anfield crowd, were awarded a spot-kick. In bizarre style, Patrick Kluivert jumped with two arms above his head and made contact with the ball.
Rivaldo (C) is seen trying to wriggle clear of Dieter Hamman (R) during the UEFA Cup classic
McAllister made himself the hero by stepping up and drilling into the roof of the net, leaving Reina stranded and with no chance.
Advantage Liverpool, then, but Barcelona refused to lie down. They peppered the home side’s goal in search of a leveller in the early knockings of the second half, and the Reds were largely restricted to forays forward on the counter-attack.
Gerrard thundered inches wide of the far post as the minutes ticked down, and he was treated to a rapturous reaction from the home supporters after being taken off, having suffered a calf injury. In his absence, Liverpool managed to hold on.
Years on, Gerrard also cast his mind back to the infamous tie and remembered testing his abilities against a silky operator, who wrestled control of the midfield.
McAllister celebrated at full-time amid scenes of jubilation, with Liverpool reaching the final
‘I’m the lucky one that’s had the opportunity to compete against him as a player,’ he said during his pre-match press conference yesterday.
‘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.’
Then still a student of the game, Gerrard was just a month away from his 21st birthday during the clash, while Guardiola was a seasoned superstar.
In the end, Liverpool won the UEFA Cup, beating Alaves 5-4 in a thriller. To little surprise, Gerrard was one of the goal scorers – and he went from strength to strength across the rest of his glittering career on Merseyside before hanging up his boots.
This evening, Gerrard will face Guardiola for the first time since the tie, but this time as a boss
‘I’m happy he is doing a good job,’ Guardiola added on Gerrard. ‘He did an incredible job at Rangers, he broke I don’t know how many leagues of Celtic in a row.
‘When you see these [recent Villa] games you know there are ideas behind it. It’s a really tough game and a nice challenge.’
And it is this reinvigorated Villa who will pose City’s next challenge. Suddenly, over the course of a handful of training sessions, they are organised, driven and fighting for the badge once again. Quite simply, Gerrard has done impressive work.
Guardiola will be aware that this match is a potential banana skin for his slickers, and will have prepared his team in excruciating detail. But beneath it all, this is a meeting between two of football’s icons, and Gerrard will be targeting yet another upset.