The first game after the sale of Philippe Coutinho was always going to be an important one. All eyes will have been on Liverpool, rightly or wrongly, to see how we would cope without undoubtedly our star man for the past few seasons. With that game being the visit of league leaders Manchester City, it made the spotlight even brighter on Jurgen Klopp’s men. With that overbearing factor aside though this promised to be a cracking game between arguably the two best teams in the league so far this season. A win for Liverpool would move them level with Manchester United in second place and cement out position in the top four, while three points for City would extend their unbeaten run in the league to 23 and move them eighteen points clear of the chasing pack. This was sure to be one of the biggest games of the season.
Despite that being the case though Jurgen Klopp continued with his rotation policy. Loris Karius continued in goal instead of Simon Mignolet, with the manager saying pre-match that the opportunity was there for his countryman to make the position his own. Virgil van Dijk was the big miss from the team, apparently suffering from a tight hamstring picked up in training through the week. Dejan Lovren would deputise and captain the side, partnering Joel Matip in the centre of defence and being flanked by Joe Gomez and Andy Robertson on either side. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was chosen ahead of Adam Lallana in the heart of Liverpool’s midfield to audition for the role of filling Coutinho’s shoes. The remaining three of the ‘fab four’ – Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah – would all start up front.
The visitors had their own selection issues to contend with going into this game. Gabriel Jesus is still missing due to knee injury picked up in the New Years’ Eve draw at Selhurst Park and cannot be considered until the trip to Basel in the Champions League in February. Vincent Kompany has recently returned to training following his own latest injury but this game came too soon for him. Instead John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi would fill the centre of City’s defence, while Sergio Aguero would fill the void left by Jesus up front. David Silva’s personal issues have resulted in him missing games lately, thus, he now needs to regain match fitness. He would make the bench but Ilkay Gundogan would start in his place in alongside the mercurial Kevin de Bruyne in central midfield.
The technically gifted midfield of City would struggle to get into the game in the opening stages though, succumbing time and again to Liverpool’s high press. This seemed to the the away side’s kryptonite and Liverpool looking to play on how incapable Pep Guardiola’s men looked at retaining the ball when a red shirt thrust himself into their faces. Nine minutes in Roberto Firmino dispossessed Fabian Delph on the left and the loose ball fell into the path of Oxlade-Chamberlain. He drove forward from midfield seemingly with only one thing on his mind. He walked past Fernandinho, took two more touches, and, as Otamendi flung himself in with a last-ditch tackle, let rip from twenty yards towards the Kop goal. Ederson dived despairingly but was powerless to stop the accurate low drive from nestling in his bottom corner. Oxlade-Chamberlain took off sprinting into The Kop with his ecstatic team-mates behind. Liverpool had an early lead and it was no more than we deserved.
After the goal the game became fascinatingly attritional. It was clear that both sides wanted to win but wanted to do so by playing football. City’s talented midfield began to come into the game more and exert the influence they were more than able to have. de Bruyne turned and swept a lovely ball across the face Karius’ Anfield Road End goal, but Sergio Aguero wasn’t quick enough to react to his team-mates nous. Leroy Sane also had an effort from twenty yard which deflected off Dejan Lovren’s backside and, momentarily, looked like it would bulge the Liverpool net. Alas, it went wide and the corner eventually came to nothing. The visitors had now woken up and they would have the goal they needed before half time.
Gundogan played a sprawling cross field pass towards Sane on the City left which Joe Gomez initially looked favourite to clear. Gomez misread the flight of the ball though and Sane was now in on Karius’ goal. He had the freedom of the Anfield Road and closed in. He sidestepped the challenge of Matip before unleashing a powerful shot at goal. Karius dived at his near post and should’ve saved it, but the shot proved to have too much venom and it burst the Liverpool net to level the scores. The away end erupted and it looked as if the City record could be about to replay itself for twenty third time.
Not long after Sane equalised the whistle was blown for half time. It had been a brilliant half of Premier League football with both sides playing some fantastic stuff. All in all, the score was probably just given how City had come back into the game having gone one down. Yet you had the feeling they had been exposed and, if Liverpool could find some energy and intensity, they would be exposed again. The high press had worked a treat in the early stages, but Liverpool had eased off and the Citizens had capitalised. There was certainly all to play for come the second half and what a second half it would be.
When the second half kicked off Liverpool found themselves in an unfamiliar position as it was City who took the onus. The movement of de Bruyne and Gundogan off the ball goes unnoticed due their proficiency in spraying passes across the field, but it was causing Liverpool no end of problems in the opening stages of the first half. The width provided by Sterling – who was roundly booed by Kopites for the hour he was on the pitch – and Sane was stretching the Liverpool defence, yet it stood firm. City had chances. Aguero’s nimble footwork found him in the Liverpool area on numerous occasions, although Matip and Lovren always managed to dispossess him at the crucial moment. From a corner Nicolas Otamendi rose to meet the ball but his header flicked the bar on its way into The Kop.It looked like a Manchester City goal was imminent – that was until the fifty ninth minute.
Gini Wijnaldum, outstanding all afternoon, won the ball in midfield and lifted it forward for Roberto Firmino to run onto. John Stones met him in the City area and looked like he had the situation under control. Firmino was having none of it though and shoulder barged Stones out the way. He was now clean through on goal but still had plenty to do. Stones was back up and closing in on Firmino. Sensing this, he lifted the ball over Ederson with impudent skill. Otamendi desperately sprinted back to clear the ball but was unsuccessful, and it bounced off the post and into the goal. Anfield was delirious again as Liverpool retook the lead. It would stay 2-1 for long though.
Moments after Firmino gave Liverpool the lead again, Mohamed Salah robbed the ball of Otamendi thirty yards from the opposition goal. Mane and Salah were now 2v1 against Stones and Salah slipped the ball into the Senegalese wingers feet. He hit the post from similar range a minute earlier, but this time he took one touch to line up the shot before smashing it into the top corner of Ederson’s goal to make it 3-1. Liverpool still weren’t done though. On 68 minutes Mohamed Salah tried to poke a ball forward for Mane to run onto again. There was too much power on it though and Ederson came thirty yards out of his goal to clear. However, his clearance went as far as Salah who, from forty five yards, proceeded to pass the ball over the 6″5 Brazilian goalkeeper’s head and into the goal to make it 4-1. City had been swept away in a lightning ten minutes of football which looked to have won Liverpool this astonishing game. It wasn’t over yet though, not by a long chalk.
City brought on Bernardo Silva for Raheem Sterling, who had been given a torrid afternoon by a belligerent and outstanding Andy Robertson. The Scot has had an impressive start to his Anfield career, but this was undoubtedly his best game, closing down anything that moved and even chasing the ball fifty yards out of his position to put Ederson under pressure at one point. With The Kop singing his name it is bound to be a day he is unlikely to forget in a hurry. Yet he had a new challenge to face up to in the shape of Bernardo Silva and the Portuguese immediately looked to drag Robertson into the middle of the pitch. On 84 minutes Robertson was caught ball watching as Aguero and Sane combined down the City left. Aguero’s shot was blocked by Matip and the loose ball fell into the path of the wide open Bernardo Silva, who simply passed into the net with Karius diving across goal. A nervous silence fell over Anfield as a feeling of “we’ve been here before” seemed to descend across the ground.
Liverpool now looked nervy and City were seeing most of the ball. As the clock ticked down minutes seemed to turn to days, as the baby blue screwdriver turned and tightened with every pass. The referee added four minutes, four agonising minutes, of time at the end of the game. In the first of those minutes Leroy Sane dribbled across the face of the Liverpool box before laying the ball off to Sergio Aguero. He lifted it into the area, where Ilkay Gundogan found himself in space between the two Liverpool centre halves. He brought it down beautifully on his chest before prodding it past Karius with the outside of his foot to make it 4-3. Surely this wouldn’t happen again?
Nerves around Anfield began to jangle and City were given one last throw of the dice when they were awarded a free kick in the last minute of the game. Ragnar Klavan was sent on to help deal with the aerial situation but de Bruyne sent it low towards the near post. Aguero dived to meet it and got a good connection to send it goalwards, but it rustled the side netting and Liverpool were given a goal kick. When Karius lofted the ball forward the referee called time on a riveting and entertaining game. Liverpool had ended Manchester City’s 22 match unbeaten streak in the league and shot themselves ahead of Chelsea in the process.
Many had this one down as a potential game of the season before it kicked off but no one could have predicted what would happen at Anfield this afternoon. We once again saw the best and worst of this Liverpool side. They were devastatingly effective, destroying the side many have as champions in waiting, in ten astounding second half minutes. However, they almost shot themselves in the foot again with panicky and thoughtless defending. That being said, the positives from this game far outweigh the negatives. The individual performances of Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum, Sadio Mane, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Andy Robertson have rightly been lauded in the hours after the final whistle. The truth is that to pick out any individual display is doing an injustice to the rest of this fantastic team. To a man, Liverpool were outstanding today and the victory – over the side currently running away with the league – was deserved. How good does that sound?