Saturday saw the two teams topping the Premier League table pitted against each other as Manchester City welcomed Liverpool to the Etihad. The game ended in a 1-1 draw, with Erling Haaland putting the defending champions ahead in the 27th minute, and Trent Alexander-Arnold setting the score back level in the 80th.
In a more-less expected way, the home side dominated possession and frequently besieged Liverpool’s goal, especially in the first half, while the moments when the visitors threatened were few and far apart. It was perhaps slightly surprising to see Liverpool lose the midfield battle so easily, particularly with the fact that Kevin De Bruyne missed the match through his long-term injury in mind – the Merseysiders were probably the only team in any competition that could compete with City on that front in previous seasons.
But not on this occasion. City boss Pep Guardiola arranged his team in a very attacking 3-2-4-1 shape and it proved very efficient keeping the affair mostly under their control. While Kyle Walker, Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake remained at the back, centre-back Manuel Akanji stepped up to join Rodri in deeper midfield areas. Further up, Bernardo Silva and Julian Alvarez played as a double No.10, with Jeremy Doku on the left wing and Phil Foden on the right. Haaland was, of course, the man upfront.
Jurgen Klopp’s standard 4-3-3 formation was set to lose the battle in the middle of the park, with three midfielders, namely Alexis Mac Allister, Curtis Jones and Dominik Szoboszlai, no match against Guardiola’s six. At the back, Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip were flanked by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kostas Tsimikas, in the absence of the injured Andy Robertson. Diogo Jota played on the left, Darwin Nunez through the middle, and as always, Mohamed Salah on the right.
Jones was probably the weakest link in the Liverpool lineup. His usual know-how in keeping the ball under pressure and smart passing were nowhere to be seen, and it was no surprise to see him pulled off to the bench first, after only 54 minutes, together with the injured Jota. It was Ryan Gravenberch who came on in his place, and the Dutchman’s endeavor helped the Reds get the ball forward much more quickly than before.
Given the way Manchester City and Liverpool usually play, there were surprisingly few clear-cut chances. City were given two in the first half by Alisson Becker in the Liverpool goal, who looked surprisingly poor with the ball at his feet. The Brazilian first set Foden up for a shot by passing straight to the City winger, and then his poor ball forward ended up finding Nathan Ake, who showed great skill to keep it under pressure, as well as creativity to set up Haaland’s opener.
There were a few moments when City could’ve (and should’ve) doubled their lead, most notably in the 80th minute when Haaland poked it goalwards from close range and offered Alisson a good chance of redemption, which the Liverpool shot-stopper took well. The visitors went forward immediately through substitute Luis Diaz, who switched sides with a nice horizontal pass in the attacking third and found Gravenberch and Salah there. With the ball at Salah’s feet, Gravenberch made a great run out wide and thus opened the space closer to the middle, where Salah found Alexander-Arnold. The England international took one fine touch to control it, and fired with admirable precision beyond the reach of Ederson Moraes.
At that point, Guardiola’s plan arguably backfired. With five attacking players in the starting lineup and the score now not what he and his men had hoped for, he had no weapon that would’ve been of any use to introduce from the bench. In fact, the Catalan tactician made no changes at all throughout the match, while Klopp made all five.
Naturally, City tried hard to get ahead again, but apart from a fresh phase of possession domination, they didn’t really threaten Alisson, even though referee Chris Kavanagh allotted eight minutes of stoppage time.
A record set, a run ended
Haaland’s goal in this game was his 50th in 48 Premier League matches, and he is now the fastest player ever to reach that milestone.
The Norwegian striker is truly a marvel, with unbelievable physical attributes – strength, pace, height, as well as smart positioning, excellent finishing, and when it comes to centre-forwards, there arguably isn’t a better one on the planet at the moment.
On the other hand, City’s failure to win this contest ended their sublime run of 23 consecutive home victories in all competitions.
“The longer the run is, it’s likelier to end,” Klopp told the press ahead of the game.
There was bewilderment from both managers and their respective staffs at Kavanagh’s decision to prolong the second half by eight minutes, given that there were no interruptions that would warrant so much stoppage time.
But overall, the referee had a very good game. His decisions were mostly right, and there was one which would’ve obviously had impact on the outcome. In the 68th minute, with the score standing at 1-0 for City, Alvarez took a corner straight into the six-yard box. The ball appeared to have slipped from Alisson’s fingers and Dias was on-hand to poke it home, but just as the Etihad exploded into celebration, Kavanagh’s whistle went and a free-kick was awarded, with a foul by Akanji on the Liverpool ‘keeper as clear as day.
Three minutes earlier, Rodri appealed for a penalty when Gravenberch deflected his shot out for a corner. The City midfielder screamed at the referee, slapping his own arm to make his claim clear, and several of his teammates came to his support. However, a closer look revealed that the ball actually grazed Gravenberch’s thigh and was nowhere near either of his arms, and that Rodri was well aware of that, with the VAR in place, it was rather ridiculous from the Spain international to even ask for a penalty.
At the very end of the game, after the final whistle, there was a bit of a tussle between Guardiola and Nunez. Luckily, both sets of coaches reacted straight away to prevent any incident. Klopp was particularly determined to get his passionate striker to calm down, and speaking to the press afterwards, he said he didn’t even know what it was all about as he didn’t understand a word that was said between Nunez and the City boss.
With a point taken apiece, both teams have lost a bit of ground in the title race, and Arsenal later took full advantage to overtake both by beating Brentford at the Community Stadium. The Gunners now lead the way with 30 points, City are second with 29, followed by Liverpool and Aston Villa with 28 each. Villa also made the most of the situation with a big win away to Tottenham Hotspur, who have now lost three consecutive Premier League games and dropped to sixth place with a tally of 26.
Liverpool now have a slightly more favourable schedule, and barring any unpleasant surprises from their point of view, they’re expected to strengthen their position through the next three rounds. After their Europa League clash with LASK, they’ll face Fulham at home, and then Sheffield United and Crystal Palace away.
As for City, it’s a bit of a mix of difficulty levels. They will welcome RB Leipzig in the Champions League on Tuesday, followed by the arrival of the wounded Spurs to the Etihad, and a trip to Aston Villa. The week after, they’ll play host to Luton Town.
Liverpool will obviously be happier with the point; firstly, leaving the Etihad undefeated isn’t something any team can do, and secondly, they were mostly outplayed in the contest. On the other hand, City won’t like the fact that their incredible home run ended, or that they failed to make a game they dominated over their fierce rivals count for more.
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