Few games sum up what it is like to support Liverpool better than the classic that played out when the runaway league leaders, Manchester City, came to Anfield. Fans felt joy, frustration, elation and then panic as the game unfolded – ultimately they came away very happy indeed, as Klopp’s men held on for a win that deprives City of their unbeaten record in the league and fires Liverpool into third place. Familiar defensive frailties reared their heads, but it was the attackers’ day. The front three, supported by a strong showing from the midfield, were all exceptional; this was reflected in the sheer class of each of the four goals, which were worthy of winning any football match.
Liverpool went into this game in the knowledge that they had a fighting chance. Manchester City’s unbeaten run would undoubtedly have been daunting, but Klopp’s side are putting together quite a string of results themselves: seventeen undefeated before this game. Further, City are the sort of side Liverpool love to play against – only the very best offensive teams back themselves to come to Anfield with real attacking intent, and this leaves space in behind of the kind which Mane and Salah simply love to exploit. There was something of a question mark over whether this weapon would be quite as effective without Coutinho to pick out the explosive runs, but it is fair to say this question was answered emphatically. Inside ten minutes, Liverpool had the lead: it was another of the pacey players, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who scored it. Firmino’s typical pressing presented the ball to the midfielder in the attacking third, and his driving run caught City on the back foot. Nobody was quick enough to close him down, and his strike from distance rifled past Ederson and into the bottom corner. On any other day it would have been the best goal of the match; today it was probably the least remarkable of Liverpool’s four, but it was vital in that it turned the strong start into something tangible. There was no relenting after the goal, and City continued to find themselves hustled and harried; it was apparent that this was a side used to being given time to play an expansive game and pick their way through, and they did not look comfortable in the face of the press. For this, all of Liverpool’s midfield must take great credit – Oxlade-Chamberlain, Can and Wijnaldum all played their part in forcing turnovers. When in possession, Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular were instrumental in preventing such turnovers from going against them – both of them showed excellent awareness and calmness on a number of occasions to ensure possession was not squandered cheaply.
Despite this promising and assured performance, Liverpool did not manage to go in at the break with their lead intact. They will feel that they deserved to do so, but they can only blame themselves for the manner in which the equaliser was conceded. For a third time in recent weeks, Joe Gomez had difficulty dealing with a raking cross-field ball – Sane was able to nip in behind him, and after cutting inside he somehow managed to beat Karius at his near post. Gomez can perhaps be afforded some leniency, given that he is young and playing out of position; the German stopper is also inexperienced, but it is difficult to see how a good goalkeeper in any stage of his career manages to concede so cheaply. Klopp’s decision to play him is understandable, given that Mignolet is hardly inspiring either and Karius at least has time on his side in terms of development – it has got to a point, though, where the manager has to seriously question whether either of them are good enough for a side with ambitions as lofty as Liverpool’s. The attack showed that they remain more than functional even in the absence of the mercurial Coutinho: Klopp may have just had his mind made up for him about where the money from that sale should be invested.
Still, it would be an injustice to the game and the performance to dwell on the unsatisfactory goalkeeping situation – what followed was vintage Liverpool, with all the brilliance and madness that this entails. As the second half began, there looked to be a danger of Klopp’s men deflating; for all their endeavour they were still level on the score-line, and for a short time they played the dangerous game of just absorbing City pressure. Before long, however, things clicked back into gear: the manager said after the game that the only way to beat Guardiola’s team is to attack them, and this is what they set about doing. It was Firmino who restored the lead, in staggeringly good fashion. Oxlade-Chamberlain knocked a ball for him to run on to; Stones looked the firm favourite to get there, but the Brazilian shrugged him off with ease. He then glanced up at the onrushing Ederson and calmly clipped the ball over him and in at the far post – the instantaneous transition from brute strength to sumptuous finishing was reminiscent of Suarez in his prime. Firmino is one of many who can stake a claim to Man of the Match. Oxlade-Chamberlain is another one whose name has to be in the mix, while Andy Robertson is doubtless a contender as well. He delighted the Anfield faithful by frustrating Sterling all game, thwarting him at every turn – this culminated in a booking and early substitution for the former Liverpool man, who will not have enjoyed his return.
City were shaken by conceding – just a minute later they were seemingly let off the hook when Mane struck the woodwork. He was not to be denied, however: yet another attack came after another minute or so, and this time he slammed the ball emphatically into the top corner. As against Burnley, it was an explosive finish on his weaker side: the technique required cannot be underestimated. Not to be outshone, Salah completed a remarkable ten-minute spell for the team with an outrageous goal of his own. Ederson made a rare mistake with his clearance, no doubt shaken by the relentless Liverpool siege, and the Egyptian swept the ball into the unguarded net from all of thirty-five yards as if it was the easiest thing in the world. It feels like this is said every week, but it just gets truer and truer: thirty-five million pounds is one of the greatest bargains of recent years.
Manchester City, the team being understandably treated by most as the champions-elect, the team producing some of the best football in the history of the Premier League, thus found themselves 4-1 down. This is testament to Liverpool’s immense array of attacking firepower, as well as Klopp’s skill in harnessing and optimising it. If he can keep this exciting, talented group together then there is no denying that they can go on to produce special things: seldom has such a good opponent been dismantled with such ease. However, if any sustained success is to be enjoyed, the goings-on at the other end of the field have to be rectified sooner rather than later. Even at 4-1, nobody was treating the result as a foregone conclusion – Liverpool fans have seen too many collapses to take anything as a given. Sure enough, City were allowed to muster a late fightback: Bernardo Silva found himself free in the box to turn the ball home in the 84th minute, and in the first of four minutes of added time Gundogan was left similarly unmarked to make it 4-3. In less stressful circumstances Lovren’s attempt to intercept the cross would have been comical. There was nothing funny about the possibility of letting such a good, hard-fought position slip, however: Klopp’s fury was evident on the touchline. Virgil Van Dijk has only played one game for the club, but already he is a big miss in his absence: aside from the fact that he would undoubtedly have prevented at least one of the two late goals, the calmness that he exuded against Everton would have been highly welcome in this fixture. In the end, though, it didn’t matter: Liverpool clung on for victory, and nobody could say they didn’t deserve it.
It was football at its best: breathless, scintillating, enthralling and full of quality. Both sides were somewhat suspect at the back, but this only served to add to the spectacle. It can only be good for football that City’s unbeaten streak was taken from them in this fashion – the prospect of an ‘invincibles’ season was wrested forcefully away from them, rather than nicked by a parked bus and a lucky goal. At any rate, it was certainly good for Liverpool: the win is all the sweeter for Chelsea and Arsenal’s dropped points, and the top four picture is looking as good as it has all season. In the post-match elation, even the fifteen-point gap doesn’t feel completely unassailable! Realistically, the title charge may have to wait for next season: on today’s evidence, though, Liverpool’s rivals better sit up and take notice of them when it comes to the next campaign.
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