MANCHESTER, England — Across his stellar managerial career, Pep Guardiola has won the Champions League twice, captured 19 other major trophies and coached perhaps the greatest ever club team in Barcelona's class of 2009-11.
It was surprising then that the Manchester City coach thought a 1-1 draw against Liverpool in the Premier League on Sunday represented "one of happiest days of my career."
City's players, Guardiola revealed, had been moping around the training ground — "they were so, so sad" — since the team's Champions League elimination by Monaco on Wednesday, and were now facing a direct rival for the top four that specializes in winning heavyweight Premier League games.
When Liverpool took the lead through James Milner's penalty in the 51st minute, City's resolve was tested again. That his players managed to come out of the game with a point, through Sergio Aguero's 69th-minute goal, gave Guardiola a special feeling.
"It is one of the days I am proud of the most," an animated Guardiola said.
His Liverpool counterpart, Juergen Klopp, felt Guardiola was caught up in the moment — "He is Spanish, They are a little bit more emotional than Germans" — but perhaps it was understandable after the riveting fare that the two teams had just served up.
Aided by some weak defending, there were chances galore at Etihad Stadium and it came as a surprise that only two goals were scored.
A penalty was always likely in this game — played on a slick surface after pre-match rain — because of the last-ditch defending on show. In the first half alone, there was Nicolas Otamendi's pull on Sadio Mane as the Liverpool forward ran clean on goal, Milner's clip on the ankle of Raheem Sterling as the City winger looked set for a tap-in, and Ragnar Klavan's apparent tug on Aguero in the same move.
All three were 50-50 calls and not given but City defender Gael Clichy's foul on Roberto Firmino was clear, with the left back having previously lost his man by slipping over. Milner, a former City player who had been jeered by sections of the home crowd in the first half, sent Willy Caballero the wrong way from the spot for his seventh successful penalty of the season.
City's equalizer was slickly executed, with Kevin De Bruyne delivering a teasing low cross from the right that Aguero tucked home from just outside the six-yard box. Aguero has scored in all five homes games against Liverpool in the Premier League.
In an end-to-end final 20 minutes, De Bruyne struck a shot against the post, Adam Lallana kicked fresh air from close range with the goal at his mercy, and Sterling missed a one-on-one chance.
Possibly the best opportunity fell to Aguero in injury time, but he volleyed over from close range.
A draw was probably a fair result in the end, keeping the teams in the last two Champions League qualifying places. Chelsea is seemingly running away with the title, so the objective for City and Liverpool is to finish in the top four.
Liverpool kept up its excellent record against its rivals in the top six this season, with Klopp's team winning five and drawing five from 10 games. How the Reds regret slipping up so often against the league's lower-placed side.
"There is one outstanding, consistent side this year and they will be champions probably," Klopp said. "The rest fight with all they have for the Champions League."
Fourth-placed Liverpool is four points ahead of fifth-placed Manchester United, having played two games more.
The race for Champions League qualification is going down to the wire.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80