It was described as the biggest game of the season and for once that lived up to its billing.
October’s last meeting – a drab 0-0 draw which featured a league-low 13 shots – was quickly forgotten last night as Manchester City and Liverpool set about producing a high-tempo, high-octane display befitting the best two sides in the country.
This top-of-the-table Premier League clash at the Etihad Stadium had it all: brilliant goals, high drama, near misses, contentious decisions, tactical intrigue, a manager meltdown and a nervy conclusion – and at the end of it all a result which keeps the title race alive and well.
Liverpool’s unbeaten league record has fallen at the 21st hurdle. City’s winter wobble may be over. And the gap, which could have been extended to a daunting 10 points, is down to surmountable four. Neutrals rejoice – it’s game on once again.
Coming into the must-win tie Pep Guardiola may have had cause for concern, with his opposite number Jurgen Klopp holding an impressive head-to-head record against the Catalan.
Klopp had won four, drawn two and lost just one of his previous seven meetings with Guardiola’s City in all competitions, but it was the Spaniard who got the better of the German in Manchester.
Guardiola got the big decisions right, his big players stepped up to the plate and won more of the big moments.
With Benjamin Mendy injured and Fabian Delph suspended, Guardiola fielded Aymeric Laporte at left-back, meaning Vincent Kompany and John Stones partnered each other for just the second time in the league this season. It was a bold decision, but although there were shaky moments, it paid off.
Fernandinho’s importance to the defending champions has been a point often reiterated, but following last night’s performance it bears repeating once more: the Brazilian holding midfielder is one of the league’s most valuable players.
In a match where both sides were intent on pressing the other high up the pitch, it was Fernandinho who so frequently broke up Liverpool moves and got his team on the front foot. With the similarly dogged Bernardo Silva alongside him, City won the midfield battle.
But City also crucially had luck on their side. Sadio Mane struck the post 17 minutes into the game to prompt an almost unbelievable sequence of events which saw Stones kick the ball into his prone goalkeeper, sending it back towards the empty goal before he retreated to keep it from fully crossing the line by only 11mm.
The good fortune continued as City captain Kompany received just a yellow card for a dangerous challenge on Mohamed Salah, who might have sprinted clear after Stones’s stray ball. Kompany described it as a “great challenge” post-match, but on another day he could have cost his team.
Having taken time to suss out their opponents, City struck. Bernardo crossed to the near post and Sergio Aguero, like he has so often before, darted in front of Dejan Lovren to take a touch and smash an unstoppable shot past Alisson into the roof of the net. It was a deserved 1-0 lead at half-time, yet far from a secure one.
Klopp’s move to bring on Fabinho for James Milner and change shape from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 saw Liverpool get a foothold and they made it count when Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross-field pass picked out Andy Robertson, who cushioned the ball across goal for Roberto Firmino to head in.
Guardiola responded by bringing on Ilkay Gundogan for David Silva and the fine margins of elite-level football told shortly after.
Lovren – the man who insisted two days ago Liverpool could go the season unbeaten – played Raheem Sterling onside and he set up opposite winger Leroy Sane to blast in off the inside of the far post.
With Liverpool pushing forward, Alisson was required to keep out Aguero one-on-one and save from Bernardo, but Salah did force a fine stop from Ederson – following the perceived foul which caused a Guardiola outburst on the touchline – before the nervy final moments.
Liverpool, of course, are far from dead and gone. “We lost it, but it will happen,” was Klopp’s assessment. “Tonight it is not nice but it is not the biggest problem.” They have lost the battle, but the war is far from over.