Yet another unbelievable occasion at Anfield on a European night under the lights. It may be a much-used cliché but it really does change the atmosphere around the old ground. There had been a short time since the draw but the weeks had gone so slow in anticipation of this all English clash.
There had been a passionate welcome for the Liverpool team coach pre-game in the streets around Anfield and a more intimidating one for Manchester City, spoiled by a handful of fans throwing missiles.
Time to stop waiting
On the walk up to the ground you could already hear the noise escaping into the cool Merseyside night half an hour prior to kick-off. It seemed like everyone was ‘up’ for this game. It promised to be a cracker and if you are a Liverpool fan, it didn’t disappoint.
Some surprising team news (in my opinion), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain starting for the reds and Raheem Sterling, the pantomime villain, on the bench for the blues.
A rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone echoed around the ground and the long wait was over for the 50,000 plus packed into the ground and the millions watching around the world. Pep Guardiola promised that his team wouldn’t buckle under the atmosphere and they started in impressive fashion, dominating possession but without penetration.
Fireworks on the pitch
In the 12th minute Liverpool hit City on the counterattack with a sliding ball past the half-way line to Mo Salah. Salah forced City on to the back foot, slipped in Bobby Firmino, who got a weak shot away that Emerson should have dealt with comfortably in the nets. The ball squirmed back to Firmino, who squared to Salah and it seemed like an age before he lifted his shot into the Kop net to send Anfield into raptures.
Liverpool now smelt blood against the English champions elect. Oxlade-Chamberlain picked the ball up in midfield and drove at the retreating City defence. He struck a perfect shot from around 20 yards that powered past Emerson to make it 2-0. We were now talking about finishing the tie on the night rather than just keeping the match alive.
The City defence were now all over the place, with Vincent Kompany suddenly showing his age. Salah dinked an inviting cross for Sadio Mane to head home from close range to make it 3-0. Anfield was now at full volume, an almost disbelieving Anfield rubbing its eyes (and not due to the smoke bombs) in unison as the half-time whistle blew.
Backs to the wall
Liverpool were dealt a blow early in the 2nd period when Salah limped off. It was a blow in the sense we didn’t know how serious it was at the time but early indications are that our initial fears are unfounded. It wasn’t a blow tactically. At 3-0 up Liverpool didn’t really need the creativity in the 2nd half, it was more a matter of rolling their sleeves up and grafting for a clean sheet. And boy did they roll their sleeves up.
James Milner covered every blade of grass, aided and abetted by Jordan Henderson. The full backs, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, rose to the occasion, marshalled well by Virgil van Dijk. There were heroes in red all over the pitch.
City was largely disappointing. Lots of possession in front of Liverpool but the stat of ‘no shots on target’ told a tale. Gabriel Jesus looks like he’s not quite ready to be the heir apparent to Sergio Aguero’s crown. Kevin De Bruyne huffed and puffed but was far from his early season form.
It was only when Guradiola moved David Silva closer to Leroy Sane did City mount any real danger. Silva and Sane linked with those quick, short passes in tight spaces that Silva is famous for. It was effective for a short period but again little end product.
Time ticked away, Anfield got louder and Liverpool’s defence took on a steely look of ‘thou shall not pass’. An away goal at this stage would have tipped the tie in the balance. It was vital to keep a clean sheet and soak up any pressure thrown at the reds. It wasn’t pretty but boy was it effective.
A late Henderson booking slightly tainted the result, meaning he will miss the 2nd leg next week in Manchester. It stretches Liverpool’s squad further along with the injuries.
Made in Europe
Liverpool won’t get carried away thinking the job is done. City, as much as anyone, will have the belief that they can some how get through with the quality they have. Coming out the ground we were playing the result down saying ‘it’s only half-time’ but deep down the reds have one foot in the semi’s. Who would bet against Liverpool scoring at The Etihad?
Liverpool, even allowing for their poor trophy haul over the last few years, really are made for Europe and Europe is made for them. There really is something special when attending these nights when a big team come to town. Every round it seems they rack it up a notch and every round lifts the atmosphere.
We (Liverpool) may not go all the way and lift the trophy but Jurgen Klopp has definitely brought back a belief not seen since Rafa Benitez’s days. It was a pleasure and a privilege to have been in the ground last night. Here’s hoping for many more in the future.