Manchester City took on Liverpool in a game that reinvigorated the title race. In a match where anything other than a win for City would have realistically knocked them out of the title race, the champions came up with one of the displays of the season to put the challengers back in their place, for the time being at least.
Pep Guardiola faced a slight defensive issue, for Benjamin Mendy was ruled out long term, and Fabian Delph was suspended. Oleksandr Zinchenko was probably too inexperienced to start against the runaway leaders, so Aymeric Laporte deputised at left-back, with Vincent Kompany’s physical prowess preferred in the heart of defence to Nicolas Otamendi. Kyle Walker surprisingly dropped out of the XI too, in favour of the more technical Danilo.
City for the first time deviated from their “big game” front three of Sterling-Aguero-Mahrez, with Leroy Sane coming in on the back of some excellent form. Fernandinho returned to anchor and dominate the midfield.
Liverpool surprisingly left out Fabinho for Jordan Henderson, which would prove to be their undoing. The rest of the lineup was textbook, with the classical Mane-Firmino-Salah trio upfront.
Right from the off, City’s intentions were extremely clear – to target young Trent Alexander-Arnold and overload his flank, not allowing Liverpool anything at all down their stronger left side, or through the centre. Guardiola certainly learnt his lessons from three defeats last season, for City didn’t dare to attack down the centre, instead bombarding the flanks with runners and diagonals.
A slick Liverpool move saw them nearly take the lead, with John Stones’ remarkable recovery ensuring that breathing room of 1.12cm (according to the goal-line technology) was enough for City to stay alive in the game, as well as the title race.
Pragmatism wavered off soon thereafter. Fernandinho dominated the midfield battle, with Aymeric Laporte’s positioning in left-back spot on most of the time. The two Silvas often traded positions, and the key was to outnumber Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum by using Laporte as a defensive pass, and Sane the outball. Aguero too, dropped deep quite often, ensuring that Lovren pushing up from centre-back did not tip the numbers game in Liverpool’s favour.
James Milner struggled in the transition phase, being caught out plenty of times by the returning City attackers, and Jordan Henderson’s contributions were negligible at best. Liverpool’s best midfielder, Gini Wijnladum, who adopts, very crudely put, a “don’t play and don’t let play” approach, was neutralised very well by City’s calmness on the ball, and the availability of the extra man.
City deservedly took the lead on 40 minutes, when Aguero conjured up a mesmerising first touch and a thunderous finish to follow, beating Alisson at his near post to score his seventh in the same number of games against Liverpool at home. It was no more than City deserved.
However, City’s levels dropped off subsequently. Fabinho was introduced, and Liverpool finally had someone who could play the positional game and from there hitherto ‘positionally’ outclassed and outmanoeuvred midfield. He picked up the ball from their defence and was able to carry it and find his men, and allow Liverpool to find their footing in the centre of the pitch.
Chasing an equaliser, Trent Alexander-Arnold found himself acres of space near the halfway line, towards City’s left. A beautiful, inch-perfect cross to the far post took out Danilo, and Robertson met it with a delicate touch to square it to the other post for Firmino, who couldn’t miss an unguarded goal from six yards. Liverpool were back in the game, and growing in authority.
David Silva had one of his more ineffectual games, and he was withdrawn immediately after the goal for Ilkay Gundogan, whose dynamism in midfield freed up Bernardo Silva and reignited the wave of pressing.
As City pressed on for a winner, Sane gave the ball away cheaply, and had it not been for Ederson’s calmness on the ball as he rushed off his line to sweep up a pass intended to put Mo Salah through on goal, and Danilo’s subsequent zipped pass into the feet of Raheem Sterling, City wouldn’t have been able to turn defence into a counter attack with a numerical advantage in under five seconds.
Sterling did very well to drift infield, and Aguero’s run took Lovren (and partially Alexander-Arnold) out of the game, with Sane sprinting forward on the outside at the perfect pace to take the layoff from Sterling into his stride. TAA tried to make up the ground to close down Sane on the outside, but the German was too quick for the Englishman, and an inch perfect finish made for a fitting winner.
City’s play thereafter was reminiscent of their narrow win at Watford. They defended for their lives, and Kompany’s presence was a huge, huge asset in repelling the unrelenting long balls by the Reds. Gini Wijnaldum had Liverpool’s best chance from a slightly controversial corner that left Pep Gurdiola incandescent, but John Stones made his second goal line clearance of the game to keep the score at 2-1.
Sergio Aguero, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling all had chances to kill off the game for good on the counter attack, but a sensational Alisson recovery, a very tight angle and an inexplicable miss for a striker of Sterling’s calibre respectively kept Liverpool in the game.
But City’s resistance wasn’t to be broken. Not today. Fabian Delph would have been a happy man, for City dug deep and stuck to very basics of defending and kept winning their headers and clearing the ball.
It was a much deserved victory, on a night where victory was the minimum requisite. City’s fans who turned the Etihad into a very hostile environment for the travelling players were handsomely rewarded for 90 minutes of relentless cheering and chanting, in a display that has all but convinced me of the ability of the atmosphere to influence the proceedings of a football match.
The title race is well and truly on as Liverpool surrender their unbeaten record to City in arguably the game of the season, as did City last January to Liverpool. Rejuvenated by the arrival of Fernandinho and the imminent return of Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City will hope to bulldoze their way through to another winning streak, and keep hot on the tails of Liverpool, who have now a healthy, but no longer seemingly insurmountable lead at the summit of the Premier League table.