Liverpool vs Man City: Ruthless Reds make champions pay to take control of Premier League title race

Miguel Delaney
The Independent
Liverpool celebrate after scoring their third against City: Getty
Liverpool celebrate after scoring their third against City: Getty

A familiar feeling at Anfield for Manchester City, an excitably unfamiliar feeling for Liverpool. This storming 3-1 win has given the European champions an eight-point lead at the top of the table, their biggest since the last day of the 1989-90 season… which also happened to be the last time they actually lifted the title.

They will now feel more confident than ever of finally doing that again, such was the commanding nature of the victory in this most important of face-offs.

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Because as relevant as anything was the fact they are also nine points ahead of City, and the gap in the actual game often felt as large. That was especially the case when that third goal flew in from Sadio Mane. Anfield was energised, and freer than ever to... believe, to let themselves dream.

As to whether Pep Guardiola could believe some of the decisions was another matter. He had a strong message for the officials afterwards.

The reality was admittedly - and typically - a little more complicated, since there were long passages of this game where it was very even. The actual goals that won it also came out of the most marginal differences, both in relation to those decisions that allowed them and the knife-edge moments that led to them.

That will be scant consolation for Guardiola, from a game where it really was result that was paramount over performance. Whatever about Liverpool’s long wait for a title, City will now go over 16 years waiting for a win at Anfield, and their current manager has still never won here.

So, was this the title won? That’s still so hard to say given there is still so much football to play, but it was fairly easy to see where this game was won: the City backline.

It really is difficult to get away from that, and the injuries the champions have suffered, as well as the reluctance to go in for another centre-back.

The assurance up front so suddenly - and so often - gave way to an anxiety at the back. It was visible in so many apologetic Claudio Bravo passes, so many hesitant challenges.

And that is the last thing you need against a Liverpool forward line that attack with such emotional force.

Klopp undeniably had his team prepped to snap on sudden breaks, and well prepared on how to exploit them. That was usually through exquisitely executed cross-field balls that just took out City’s press, and most of their defence.

One fair question is then whether Guardiola maybe should have tempered his approach, but so could some of his players.

How to explain the attitude of one of his usual starters in Ilkay Gundogan for the first goal? The midfielder half-heartedly played a ball straight out of defence, and that distractedly and slowly looked to where he should run to without looking where his “clearance” had gone to.

It was at the feet of Fabinho, who knew exactly where the ball was now going: into the back of the net with extreme prejudice.

It was a sensational strike, of a clarity far removed from the debate that followed it about whether Trent Alexander-Arnold had handled the ball in the area. The rationale for the decision afterwards was that his arm had not been in an unnatural position.

Liverpool took control early and never looked back (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
Liverpool took control early and never looked back (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

It wasn’t long, however, until Alexander-Arnold showed what comes so naturally to his feet. It initiated the most naturally fluid of moves, too, that again just cut through City. Alexander-Arnold found Andy Robertson with another of those sumptuous cross-field balls, the left-back barely breaking stride to swerve into Mo Salah, who just continued his own pace to head back across goal and in.

The ball was again in the back of the net before City’s backline really realised where it was. That was how blinding Liverpool’s breaks were.

That is how frustrating this must have been for City’s attack.

They had good moments, and long passages of positive passing - only for all that to be rendered irrelevant in single blasts.

That really was the difference. Around City’s goal, there was such a crucial contrast between the champions’ inexactness and Liverpool’s intensity.

The third goal summed it up and wrapped it up. Jordan Henderson maximised the space he was offered up with a supreme cross, and Sadio Mane headed it in and pretty much through Bravo.

Bernardo’s fine late goal didn’t matter.

There was the game. There may be the title.

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