In the past four seasons, only Manchester City and Liverpool have won the Premier League title. In the past four seasons, only City and Liverpool have even come close.
For all the talk of a ‘big four’, including European champions Chelsea and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United, leaving Arsenal and Tottenham behind, these are the two teams to beat. When they meet, it tends to be special. Sunday’s 2-2 draw was no different.
James Milner may not wish to watch the game back, though. For the same reasons, Pep Guardiola is unlikely to reflect fondly on a point that leaves City third, a point behind Liverpool and two shy of Chelsea.
The champions trailed twice but will feel they should have ended an 84-year wait for consecutive league victories against Liverpool, having won at Anfield last season for the first time in 18 attempts.
It was little wonder City players were bent double even before the full-time whistle was blown, this game coming at the end of a brutal week that took in trips to Stamford Bridge and Paris Saint-Germain’s Parc des Princes before another Anfield epic. On top for much of all three matches, Guardiola’s men might have taken nine points from nine across the Premier League and Champions League but instead had to settle for four.
Without a striker signing, the lack of a ruthless touch in the final third was in evidence again on Merseyside, in stark contrast to Liverpool and Mohamed Salah, as the Reds — and Milner, in particular — were somehow allowed to escape a punishing first half unscathed.
A pair of Alisson errors in last season’s meeting had teed up City’s 4-1 win, but the goalkeeper played a key role in keeping his side in the game this time.
City had briefly hinted at an alternative approach to last week’s relentless pressing of Chelsea — which included a season-high 17 pressed sequences — this time allowing 46.5 per cent of the action to play out in their own third in the first five minutes as Liverpool initially took control.
But the visitors, with one notable exception, soon found their feet and exposed Liverpool’s obvious flaw: Milner.
Phil Foden had started through the centre at Chelsea but moved to the left, trading with Jack Grealish, and thoroughly enjoyed himself up against makeshift right-back Milner, whose woeful start was only matched by fellow stalwart Jordan Henderson. The Liverpool captain completed only 50 per cent of his first-half passes and gave up possession with 46.7 per cent of his touches.
Henderson epitomised Liverpool’s first 45 minutes, but Milner was the real victim of his inability to keep the ball.
When Bernardo Silva pounced on a slack touch in the middle of the pitch, beat Henderson twice, did the same to Andy Robertson and then squeezed between Fabinho and Virgil van Dijk, leaving the latter in a tangle, he spotted Foden racing in behind Milner. Out came Alisson for a vital save.
Again and again, Foden ran at Milner. An apparent foul on the border of the box went unpunished, then the England man swung over a deep cross to find a team-mate unmarked in front of goal. Unfortunately for City, it was Kevin De Bruyne, the one man uncharacteristically matching Henderson’s mishaps stride for stride. De Bruyne stooped and headed over, one of four attempts before the break, none of which hit the target.
Next, Foden was successful in drawing a foul from Milner and a yellow card. The veteran midfielder did not learn and was caught out by an outrageous Ederson pass that required Alisson to advance again, reading Foden’s intentions as he attempted to round the goalkeeper.
Jurgen Klopp rushed down the tunnel at half-time but did not rush to make changes. Out came the same team again, Milner up against Foden again.
Crucially, however, Liverpool were able to keep the ball away from the versatile forward for a time and instead focused their attention on moving in the opposite direction down the same flank. Joao Cancelo may be a more natural full-back, but he also looked uncomfortable against Salah.
So it proved just before the hour, when Salah skipped past his opponent and suddenly had City on the back foot for the first time. They had faced only two shots to that point, but Salah’s pass found Sadio Mane with space beyond Ruben Dias and able to steer in a scarcely deserved opener.
That should have given Liverpool the belief to go after Guardiola’s men again, and City certainly wobbled for a time, but the introduction of Raheem Sterling for Grealish — at odds with Klopp’s unerring faith in his first XI — gave the Reds something new to think about and distracted from Foden, who subsequently found space again and rifled in a superb leveller with Milner unable to recover.
Milner did not last much longer, but he should have been sent off before he was subbed off. It was at this point that Guardiola’s frustration boiled over. With his side in the ascendancy, Silva’s dancing feet beat Milner and he was brought down. The former City man inexplicably evaded a second card and, with Guardiola fuming on the touchline, gesturing towards fourth official Mike Dean, slumping in his chair and then hopping up to remove his jacket, Klopp quickly made plans to replace his ailing man.
Inevitably, Joe Gomez was still waiting to come on when Milner won a throw-in deep in City territory and Liverpool built another attack. Curtis Jones fed Salah, who turned away from Cancelo, left Silva on his backside and danced past Aymeric Laporte to lash in from a tight angle. The predictable response from those of a City persuasion prompted bookings for both Guardiola and Silva.
Yet Foden had stolen the show in this fixture last term and was not about to be undone. Unperturbed by Gomez’s presence in place of Milner, he created space for a cutback that rolled away from Kyle Walker but not De Bruyne, this time a little more accurate but still benefiting from a deflection en route to the net.
There was still time for a remarkable Rodri block as Salah’s cross gave Fabinho an open goal, but the apparent promise of another twist faded as legs became heavy. The international break would do these players the world of good if not for their national team commitments.
Sloppy in the first half, sublime in the second, Liverpool and City showed both why they are the best around and how they can be beaten. Whether anyone else in the league can stay with them long enough to get a good look at those weaknesses is another matter.
While Liverpool floundered last year and City the season before, this rivalry remains on a knife-edge. The return fixture could yet prove pivotal.
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