When Liverpool hosted Manchester City at Anfield last season and Riyad Mahrez skied the penalty over the crossbar, the mood around the City camp was akin to a loss despite the 0-0 scoreline. City had the chance to inflict defeat upon their title contenders but for a lack of composure and decisiveness from the Algerian winger.
After the game last Sunday, City manager Pep Guardiola stated that “it was one of the best performances” he has seen from his team and he was more proud of his team than he has ever been. Based on the game, he was probably right. City dominated a very good Liverpool side for the most part, with more shots, more possession, more passes and a higher pass accuracy. However, in the only metric that decides points, City came up short.
‘Goals win you games’ and that is exactly what Liverpool believed in. Their performance was an example of a Liverpool side built on hunger, passion, commitment and desire. This Liverpool squad recorded their highest ever Premier League points total last season, only to have that first ever title elude them by a single point.
The first goal highlighted the difference in mentality between the two sides. The first goal came simply from the fact that City literally stopped playing. The ball initially ricocheted off Bernado Silva’s hand onto the hand of Trent Alexander-Arnold and into the feet of Sergio Aguero. At this point Aguero could have played Raheem Sterling, who was completely free with the goal gaping.
However, Aguero decided to flail his arms in protest for the potential handball on Alexander-Arnold, failing to take into account the handball on his own teammate. As Sterling was fervently asking for the ball, Aguero timidly stepped over it allowing Virgil van Dijk to push the ball into Robertson and launch a menacing counterattack.
Then 22 seconds later, Liverpool scored. Sadio Mane’s counterattack led to a scrappy clearance to Fabinho. Rodrigo was too slow on closing him down and the Brazilain shifted the ball onto his right, looked up and drove the ball into the corner of the net which left the goalkeeper with no chance.
With their first shot on goal, Liverpool had scored. They did precisely the same with their second shot on target. By the 51st minute Liverpool were 3-0 up after City had failed to convert a host of chances they had gotten at the other end. Fans and the manager alike might look to some of the controversial Video Assistant Referee decisions that supposedly went against them, but it was the lack of clinical finishing that impacted the final result, leaving them nine points behind the European Champions.
This is the fewest points Guardiola has won through his first 12 top-flight league matches of the season (25) and the first time he has been more than three points behind the top of the table at this stage of the season. Considering the calibre and quantity of players that are out due to injury, the coming festive period will prove to be a stern litmus test of whether City can clinch top spot back from Liverpool.
Liverpool have already beaten every team in the current top four and seem to have the ability to conjure up wins at the death, even when the performance has not been their best. Liverpool have already had two injury time winners this season, which is pretty much the hallmark of any time destined to be champions.
Jose Mourinho stated after the game that he believes that the title “is done unless something dramatic happens in terms of an injury situation that breaks the team.” Liverpool’s high pressing, high intensity system is very difficult to maintain over a season, especially with Liverpool playing more games this season due to Club World Cup commitments.
Yet, there seems to be an impermeable aura around Liverpool. They lost goalkeeper Alisson Becker to injury for close to a month and did not even break stride, aside from the occasional defensive lapse of concentration. Man City’s back ups like Angelino and Claudio Bravo will have to perform at exceedingly high levels to match their injured teammates.
It is remarkable to think that the title race could potentially be over between the two teams that were separated by a point last season, but as it stands, Liverpool are firmly in the driving seat and are not letting their foot off the gas anytime soon.