It has happened; Manchester City have finally managed to earn three points at Anfield against Liverpool. It’s the first time they’ve done that since Pep Guardiola took over in 2016, and it’s probably the most important triumph against the team that has been their fiercest rival for several years now.
Liverpool have been a far cry from the team that strolled to the Premier League title last season for a while now. In fact, this is their third consecutive home defeat and the fifth time in a row that they failed to win.
Much has been said about the injury crisis that has been hitting the defending champions relentlessly from the start. They’ve been left without all three designated centre-backs they had at the start of term, most likely for all that remains of it. First Virgil van Dijk, then Joe Gomez, and most recently Joel Matip. And while the two midfielders, captain Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, haven’t done too badly in replacing the trio, it’s quite obvious that they’ve been sorely missed in their default positions in midfield. The absences of Naby Keita there and forward Diogo Jota only added to their misery, while it’s worth adding that Thiago Alcantara missed over two months of action as well.
What’s more, the Merseysiders have always been known and praised for their intensity, but it seems that the injuries, and the constant forced lineup shifts that came with them, have had a heavy impact on their mental strength. In this match, they were nowhere near that intensity, and it goes a long way to explain why they were unable to cause proper trouble for the visitors.
Liverpool conceded two goals after inexplicable mistakes by Alisson Becker, on another day one of the best goalkeepers in the world – another testament of that mental fatigue manager Jurgen Klopp recently spoke about.
It may be that the arrivals of centre-backs Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies on the last day of the January transfer window prove helpful over the remaining part of the season, not to mention the imminent return of Jota in a few weeks, and Klopp is certainly capable of putting a lot of wrongs right. But already it seems too late, at least when defending their title is concerned. The Champions League seems their best chance for a trophy in 2020-21, but for that too they will have to do a lot better than they are at the moment.
On the other hand, it could be said that Manchester City played a perfect game, barring perhaps the moment when a mistake by Ruben Dias resulted in a penalty for Liverpool and the consequent goal from the spot by Mohamed Salah, and the missed penalty by Ilkay Gundogan at the other end.
Gundogan certainly made amends with two goals later, capitalizing on a lucky rebound from a difficult save and a fabulous assist from Phil Foden. The fact that those two goals were what broke Liverpool in the end and settled the game in his team’s favour also speak volumes about his performance – a great one. Foden also had a game he’ll remember fondly for the rest of his playing days, topping it off with a brilliant goal himself.
But the main point here is that City took the right approach to this contest. They abandoned their usual high-possession game, often strewn with chances in front of the opposition goal, and settled slightly deeper. They defender well, reducing the already uninspiring Liverpool midfield to practically nothing in terms of creation, and used almost every opportunity to hit quickly. Along with Foden, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling did a fine job in that aspect too.
Despite the home side not looking too bad in the first half, looking at the whole game, nothing can be said against the fact that City fully deserved this triumph.
Title City’s to lose
Guardiola can dismiss such claims as much as he likes, but at the moment, the title is certainly within reach for his team. They’ve just beaten the rival still widely considered their biggest competitor and established a 10-point lead over them with a game in hand. The season is long and far from over, but it’s hard to imagine a team of such quality allowing such an advantage to be overturned.
There are, of course, other teams to consider. The gap to Manchester United in second place is ‘only’ five points, but City also have a game in hand on their neighbours. There is Leicester City as well, behind the leaders by seven points, but even the likable team under the command of former Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers have played a game more than the Blues of Manchester.
All in all, City are in the pole position, they are on great form and they have great quality. It’ll take a miracle, or a crisis as bad as that Liverpool are going through, for them to be overtaken by anyone between now and the end of the season. It may have been an exciting race up to this point, but now, the name of the 2020-21 Premier League champions seems very predictable.
As for Liverpool, it’ll take an even bigger miracle for them to equal United’s title tally this term.
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