When you have a lead so commanding, what do you do? Do you sit back and invite the opposition onto, being happy with what you have and hoping you can hold onto it? Or do you take the game to them with the mindset that attack is the best form of defence? One thing is for certain, which is that it is impossible to play your ‘normal’ game going into a game like this. Liverpool had the task of defending a 3-0 aggregate lead taken from the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final last Wednesday night. Doing that against this City team at their ground was bound to be nothing if not difficult.
Pep Guardiola knew his side needed to attack Liverpool and lined up according. Kyle Walker, Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi made up a back three, which had Fernandinho sitting in front of it. Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane at behind Gabriel Jesus, who was chosen over Sergio Aguero as the lone front man. Aguero would make the bench as would City captain Vincent Kompany.
Jurgen Klopp made widespread changes for the Merseyside derby at the weekend in preparation for this one. Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Roberto Firmino returned to the starting line-up in place of Ragnar Klavan, Nathaniel Clyne, Jordan Henderson (who was suspended) and Dominic Solanke. The big question for Liverpool though was whether Mohamed Salah would start having gone off last week with an apparent groin injury. The Egyptian did make the starting XI, taking Danny Ings’ place.
The game got off to a predictably fast start from City and it would pay off for them early on. Virgil Van Dijk tried to play for a foul on the touchline in his own half but was bullied off the ball by Sterling. Van Dijk’s poor clearance was played straight back to Sterling down the line, who now had Jesus in support. City were now 2-on-1, and Sterling cut the ball back to Jesus on the edge of the area who slotted past Karius to give City the lead. It was a massive goal for the home side and one which they hoped would set them on their way.
City wouldn’t let up after the goal. They had packed out the midfield with offensive players and the numbers game was working. When Liverpool got out of defence we were unable to find a spare man in the middle of the park. When City did win the ball back they were already in position to counter. We were being smothered and had no answer to the pressing game the opposition were employing. They were beginning to attack in waves and it looked as if it would be a matter of time before they added to the scoreline.
Liverpool couldn’t handle the onslaught. At first, we coped well in defence with the pressure. Towards the end of the half though City began to find openings. First to go close was Bernardo Silva. He picked the ball up twenty yards out on the corner of the box, before coming inside and unleashing a piledriver towards goal. Lovren managed to get the slightest of touches onto it before it smashed off the post. Minute later, Loris Karius punched a cross straight at James Milner. It rebounded of the ex-City man and fell to Leroy Sane, who poked home through the legs of the diving Andy Robertson. However, he was beyond the goalkeeper when the last blue shirt touched the ball and the goal was disallowed for offside. Liverpool would also end the half with big chance. Mo Salah and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain linked up well down the left before the latter rounded Ederson. He couldn’t control his effort though and skewed it into the crowd.
The half even ended in energetic style when Pep Guardiola was sent to the stand for over-remonstrating with the referee over the disallowed goal. Liverpool were lucky to be in only one down while City will have been hoping to continue their domination. Things needed to change if we were to get any control of the game, although, given our tactics this season, that didn’t look like it would happen anytime soon.
The second half opened with a slightly different approach from Liverpool. Mohamed Salah went central, swapping positions with Roberto Firmino. City seemed to have lost the energy and verve that typified their first half display. We began to take more chances and get forward a little more. On fifty six minutes, Oxlade-Chamberlain played a wonderful, defence splitting pass between Walker and Otamendi. Mane bundles his way through Otamendi and was brought down by Ederson. The ball squirmed out to a red shirt and Mo Salah was on hand to chip the ball over the dive of Kyle Walker to level the scores. It was a stupidly composed finish in such high-pressure circumstances and it looked like it had won Liverpool the tie.
City now knew the game was up. With their seemingly talismanic manager in the stand and Liverpool with an away goal to their name, everything The Citizens did became a token effort. They began to rely on crosses into the box in a desperate effort to breach our defence, but the crosses were too low and Karius collected with ease time and again. Sergio Aguero came on to add a little bit of guile up front but City still couldn’t effectively find a way past Van Dijk and Lovren. The Liverpool defence started to resemble the one that shut tonight’s home side out last week at Anfield. We looked increasingly comfortable as the game wore on in every area of the pitch, not just in defence. With thirteen minutes left to play, after finding plenty of space in the opposition half throughout the second period, Nicolas Otamendi made a terminal error thirty yards from goal. Roberto Firmino picked up the loose ball and was clean through on Ederson’s goal. He slid it past his countryman and into the net via the post. Liverpool were now home and dry, and ahead on the night. The travelling Kop was now in full voice.
It was now a matter of winding the clock down for both sides. The tie was effectively won and everyone involved simply wanted to get through unscathed. When the referee did blow the whistle it set off manic scenes in the away end. Liverpool fans had just seen their side reach the semi-final of the Champions League for the first time in a decade and they were dead-set on letting the world know.
This manic performance showed our deficiencies. We are far from the finished article and City exploited that in the first half. However, in the second half we showed the world exactly what we have learnt this season. We showed how organised and disciplined we can be at the back, and how composed and thoughtful we can be going forward. When the opposition started to get desperate, we noticed it and started to play on that. This was a win borne out of maturity and, funnily enough, excellent management of the tie.
We have been on the verge of something special for a while. Maybe that something could just be winning the UEFA Champions League for a sixth time.