In what is likely to remain the biggest Premier League game of the season, Manchester City welcomed Liverpool to the Etihad Stadium in the 21st round of England’s top flight, right after the turn of the year.
Trailing after the visitors from the Merseyside by seven points ahead of the game, the champions had found themselves in a rather unfamiliar fix – a must-win situation. Even that wouldn’t be enough to overthrow Liverpool from the top of the table, but it would give Pep Guardiola’s team a proper, realistic chance to defend their title.
Liverpool have been waiting for just under three decades to be crowned domestic champions, and having gotten this far following their appearance in the Champions League final last season, they were never going to roll over for anyone; especially not Manchester City against whom they have a very positive head-to-head score since Jurgen Klopp became their manager.
There were some doubts as to the fitness of Kevin De Bruyne, but the Belgian maestro wasn’t going to miss a game of this magnitude. Still, Guardiola felt it was better to put him on the bench. Left-backs Benjamin Mendy and Fabian Delph, however, were unavailable for selection due to injury and suspension, respectively, and that was probably the biggest personnel problem Guardiola had to find a way around.
Ederson Moraes was in goal. A very rare back four was in front of him, consisting of Danilo and Aymeric Laporte as the fullbacks, with Vincent Kompany and John Stones between them. Fernandinho anchored the midfield, with David and Bernardo Silva ahead of him. Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling flanked Sergio Aguero in attack.
With former City midfielder James Milner back from injury, Liverpool had no fresh absences, but they were still without centre-backs Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, as well as midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who isn’t expected back in team training for two more months. However, his potential return at that time might prove vital in Liverpool’s late run-in.
Alisson Becker stood between the posts. Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren were at the heart of defence, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson covering their flanks. Jordan Henderson was the deepest one in midfield, joined by Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum. Roberto Firmino was the central attacking figure, with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane on either side.
The First Half
City started the game on full throttle, pushing forward and pressing high. Even without them creating any danger for Alisson, it took Liverpool almost nine minutes to get across the halfway line. But once they did, they worked up some space for Alexander-Arnold to whip in a cross from the right that bounced off Kompany and made Ederson grab it on the line.
Still, City attacked. They looked very motivated, ready to fight hard just as much as to weave their usual intricate moves. They dominated possession and circled the box, always somehow ending up on their left flank where Sane looked electric. On that side, Salah wasn’t tracking back enough and Alexander-Arnold was often caught out of position. Lovren was therefore under much pressure, constantly floating between keeping his position to deal with Aguero and going out wide to help in dealing with Sane. Liverpool had their hands full.
However, the visitors had their moments too, and for a long time their quick attacks looked more dangerous. In the 18th minute, Salah combined with Firmino and released the run of Mane through the middle. The former Southampton man entered the box and his shot beat the onrushing Ederson, only to bounce off the post. Trying to clear the danger, Stones hit his goalkeeper and it went back towards the gaping net, forcing him to stop it from going in at the last possible moment. In the very next attack, Mane volleyed a cross from Alexander-Arnold straight at Ederson.
City quickly regained composure after that and continued where they had left off – pressing well, fighting hard for every ball with a bit more desire than their opponents, and closing them down very efficiently. It took them just two minutes to force young Alexander-Arnold into a cheap mistake and Lovren to stop Aguero with a foul which resulted in a booking for the Croatian.
As always, Fernandinho’s role and his effectiveness in performing it was very important for Guardiola’s team. He was excellent at monitoring the movements of Firmino, who would often drop deep in a manner of a ‘false nine’ to try and create, only to be constantly thwarted by his Brazil teammate. Fernandinho constantly got in front of Liverpool players and made interceptions, before launching his team forward with a carefully picked pass.
Sane was another one who was having a great game for City. His clever movements, combinations with Aguero and Laporte on the left flank and his electric pace gave Alexander-Arnold a lot to worry about. He would often catch the Liverpool right-back out of position, and then use pace against Lovren to get through and whip it towards the six-yard box.
And following one such moment five minutes from the break, City quickly restarted their attack and forced it to the left again. This time it was Bernardo Silva who found himself there and he gave it to Aguero. The Argentinian was in a tight angle on the edge of six yards, but he managed to set himself up and slam it under the crossbar with Alisson unable to stop him.
Liverpool dominated the rest of the half but to no avail.
The Second Half
A proper battle developed straight after the break. Liverpool sprang alive, they pressed as hard and high up the pitch as they once used to, and it was a lot more difficult for the home side to weave their magic and stick to their game-plan at the moment. Still, City players also had a lot of energy in them and responded to fire with fire.
They also pressed high and hindered Liverpool’s attempts at playing out from the back and fought hard in the middle of the park.
Although they seemed to be forcing them into more mistakes with their pressing than the other way around, it was Liverpool who started producing dangerous moments and threatening Ederson. Alexander-Arnold hit a volley from the edge of the box and missed the target by a yard, and after Klopp freshened his midfield up by introducing Fabinho for Milner, the Reds were level in the 64th minute.
Alexander-Arnold whipped a nice ball diagonally for Robertson to chase into the box, Robertson brilliantly fooled the City defence along with Ederson as he sent it back towards the far post, and handed it on a platter for the incoming unguarded Firmino, who simply nodded in from close range.
Guardiola’s reaction to the scoreline change was to withdraw the uninspired David Silva with 20 minutes to go and replace him with Ilkay Gundogan. However, the tools that would win him the game had already been on the pitch.
Liverpool pushed their defensive line high. Aguero slipped to the left flank, occupying the attention of Alexander-Arnold. Suddenly, he cut back inside and dragged the young fullback with him, leaving a huge amount of space on the flank for Sane to run into. The ball came to the German as Sterling switched the side of play. He charged into the box and slotted into the far bottom corner, past Alisson, off the post and into the net.
Klopp then tried to revive his team by sending on Xherdan Shaqiri for Sadio Mane.
Just as the game was about to enter its final 10 minutes, Sane once again took advantage of Alexander-Arnold’s lack of focus and escaped down the left. Seeing he was about to be caught by the rest of Liverpool’s back line, he squared it across for Sterling who was stopped by some fine defending from Robertson.
From that point on, nerves started creeping in on City players, and their gameplan suddenly shifted from dominating to defending for their lives, hoping to hit on the counterattack. Straight after Sterling missed his chance to kill the game off, Liverpool had their hosts pinned inside the box and a desperate scramble ensued. With some luck, City managed to clear their lines. Sterling picked it up and charged straight at van Dijk. He lured the Dutch centre-back to come out towards him and released Aguero in behind. The Argentinian tried to go around Alisson and shoot, but the Liverpool ‘keeper stuck his hand out and made a fabulous save.
Liverpool hit back immediately as Shaqiri sent Salah running into the box. Stones wasn’t able to stop the Egyptian from taking a good shot, but Ederson was there to save it.
With five minutes to go, it was time for the managers to throw in their last cards. Klopp opted for Daniel Sturridge instead of Wijnaldum, while Guardiola took off Laporte and sent on Kyle Walker, switching Danilo to the left side. Soon afterwards, Kompany complained of an injury and made way for Nicolas Otamendi.
Sterling had another chance to make it three late on as some clumsy defending from Liverpool gave him an opportunity to shoot from around the penalty spot, but his unobstructed first-time effort went wide.
Liverpool gave a last desperate go in the five minutes of stoppage time and they caused much trouble inside City’s box, but they simply couldn’t find an equalizer.
It was a very exciting game, one befitting of two teams of such quality, and even though not all players performed well individually, it didn’t mar the overall impression.
Manchester City were slightly the better team and, when all said and done, the result reflects the performance. It seems Pep Guardiola has finally found a way past Klopp’s Liverpool, but as was the case with this encounter, there’s no way of predicting the outcome of the next one between these two sides.
The race for the Premier League title has now become even more interesting and unpredictable than before. The gap between the two teams has been reduced to just four points. There’s a long way to go, but it’s still Liverpool who are ahead despite suffering their first league defeat of the season.
MANCHESTER CITY: Ederson 8, Stones 7.5, Kompany 7.5 (88′ Otamendi N/A), Danilo 7, Laporte 7.5 (86′ Walker N/A), Fernandinho 8, B. Silva 7.5, D. Silva 6 (65′ Gundogan 6), Sterling 7.5, Sane 8.5, Aguero 8.5.
LIVERPOOL: Alisson 8, van Dijk 8, Lovren 6.5, Alexander-Arnold 6, Robertson 7.5, Henderson 7, Milner 7 (57′ Fabinho 7), Wijnaldum 6.5 (86′ Sturridge N/A), Mane 6.5 (77′ Shaqiri 7), Salah 7, Firmino 7.5.
GOALS: Aguero 40′, Firmino 64′, Sane 72′.
YELLOW CARDS: Lovren 20′, Kompany 31′, Wijnaldum 38, Laporte 45′, B. Silva 89′, Ederson 90.
REFEREE: Anthony Taylor.
DATE & VENUE: January 3, 2019, Etihad Stadim, Manchester.
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