The Champions League holds a special place in all our hearts. As Liverpool fans we have been privileged to witness some amazing moments thanks to Ol’ Big Ears. The visit of Inter Milan to Anfield in 1965 was the first great European night before being followed up by Saint Ettiene in 1977, and of course the many encounters against Chelsea during the reign of Rafa Benitez. Champions League nights came back to Anfield this season and it was games like this that we all got excited about it. Manchester City are the best team in England this season without question with a point to prove on the big stage. Forget the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. This game was likely to cause a tornado.
Jurgen Klopp has become rather predictable with his team selections during the second half of the season and tonight was no different. The return of Nathaniel Clyne has not stopped Trent Alexander-Arnold’s run in the team just yet, but Clyne would make the bench here. Joel Matip sustained a medial knee ligament injury in training during the week which has ruled him out for the rest of the season. Dejan Lovren started here and is likely to do so for the remainder of the season. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had to make do with a place on the bench at the weekend but took Gini Wijnaldum’s place tonight, while the front three of Salah, Mane and Firmino went unchanged.
Pep Guardiola has been lauded as a tactical and coaching genius during this career. He tinkered with his team tactically again here by playing Aymeric Laporte at left back over Olexandr Zinchenko, who has featured heavily in that position since the turn of the year. Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan all started in midfield, with Raheem Sterling being the unfortunate man to miss out. With Sergio Aguero injured it was down to Gabriel Jesus to lead the line.
City started the strongest and were looking to get Leroy Sane against Alexander-Arnold at any given opportunity. The young full back was giving a fine account of himself though in the early stages, holding his own against one of the best wingers on the continent this season. Liverpool, as a whole, were doing very against their opponents despite being mostly on the back foot. One eleven minutes Alexander-Arnold took the ball in the right back position and curled it down the line towards Mo Salah. Roberto Firmino raced clear ahead of him and as Salah got to the edge of the box he played his Brazilian strike partner in. Firmino took one touch but was dispossessed by Nicolas Otamendi. However, the ball bounced clear and Fimino layed it back to Salah. As Ederson closed in Salah pulled the trigger and smashed it into the Kop net to delirious screams of ecstasy. Liverpool were ahead and Anfield continued to rock, as it had done for three hours before kick-off.
With Liverpool a goal up we started to see much more of the ball. City weren’t getting the space they were previously as a rejuvenated Liverpool side began to press with more verve. They tried stretching the game by using both flanks instead of hitting Sane, but they couldn’t find a way through. On twenty minutes Liverpool again had the ball around City’s area. After a scramble between Mane and Fernandinho, Milner went in for a 50/50 with the Brazilian which he won superbly. The ball pinged into the feet of Oxlade-Chamberlain twenty yards from goal. He shifted it out of his feet with one touch before unleashing an unstoppable drive at goal with his second. Ederson started to dive but realised his effort was futile as he watched the ball whizz past him. Liverpool now had a 2-0 lead and City were rattled.
With the opposition shell shocked Liverpool gained confidence. We began to come forward more often and with deadlier intent each time. De Bruyne started to drop deeper but was unable to get time on the ball due to Liverpool’s pressure in midfield. When he was dispossessed by Oxlade-Chamberlain on the half hour mark City were in trouble again. It fell to Firmino and he played it first time to Salah on the edge of the box, who had a shot. It hit Kompany on the hand in the box but the referee said ball to hand. It came back to Salah who jogged at Kompany before lifting a ball to the back post. With red shirts queuing to score it was Sadio Mane’s head who met the ball first to nod home. Liverpool were now 3-0 up in thirty minutes against the English champions in waiting and were in danger of running away with it.
With the midfield battles being won by the men in red we took control of the game. City came forward but were continually exposed on either flank. Leroy Sane was having to track back in support of Kyle Walker, while Ilkay Gundogan was proving ineffective defensively on the opposite side. Andy Robertson and Alexander-Arnold were now off the leash and able to express themselves, whipping balls into the box and causing trouble for the opposition back four.
The half drew to a close with Liverpool 3-0 up, the crowd cheering loudly and Manchester City not having registered a shot on target in forty-five minutes of football. The game had been played a frenetic pace and the players deserved their rest, although I’m sure the Liverpool players could have played all night long. City looked in shock had what had just happened to them and so did their manager. This game wasn’t over however, and it had to be considered that Man City wouldn’t play that badly in the second half.
The anticipated City onslaught began immediately from the kick-off. They began to get us through the middle and Sane provided width when needed. Swapping De Bruyne and Gundogan also seemed to work for Guardiola, as De Bruyne, who isn’t a stranger to playing wider, seemed a more natural fit to occupy Robertson. City will have been further buoyed when Mo Salah had to be withdrawn on fifty minutes holding his groin. We had lost an outlet and a goalscoring machine, which would usually mean game over for Liverpool. With Mane and Firmino in the side though that isn’t the case anymore.
City were now pouring forward as Liverpool struggled to gain any control in the middle of the park. It was the away side now pressing and bearing the fruits. They were getting in behind Liverpool too but were too wasteful when doing so. Fernandinho played a lovely disguised ball over the top of the Liverpool back two to Sane, whose cross-shot across the box found nobody. Raheem Sterling, on as a sub, also made a good run in behind Robertson but was needlessly caught offside. It was clear that Man City could open up Liverpool and it looked like a matter of time until their big chance came. The question just seemed to be whether they’d take it or not.
As the half wore on Liverpool seemed to become more comfortable with their defensive role in this game. Man City looked as if they were running out of ideas and Pep Guardiola prowled his touchline with anxiety in every step. The desperation transferred onto the pitch to his players. As the boos punctured the ears of the Citizens, each touch they took looked tentative and safe. Liverpool looked they had worked out how to deal with their opponents and were doing so with consummate ease. Dominic Solanke replace Roberto Firmino as a focal point for attacks. He was doing a good job of holding up the ball and making a general nuisance of himself any time he could. His enthusiasm escaped to the stands where Liverpool fans continued to sing their players on in defiance. Could this notoriously shaky and leaky defence hold out though?
The Liverpool resistance was strong. City continued to come forward but it was obvious they were spent. Liverpool’s players were dead on their feet but fought on regardless. Sane, De Bruyne and Silva tried in vain to provide some service to Gabriel Jesus. The Brazilian was cutting a lonely figure up front and just could not provide the cutting edge for his team that Sergio Aguero undoubtedly would have. Alberto Moreno was brought on for extra energy and cover for Robertson. He ran his legs off as expected and helped nullify the threat of Sterling.
The referee eventually blew his whistle which but could hardly be heard over the volcanic noise of the Anfield crowd. Cheers went up from seven eighths of the stadium as Liverpool take a vital 3-0 lead into the second leg at The Etihad on Tuesday.
This was always going to be a tough game for Liverpool and fascinating for the neutral. What I don’t think many people counted on was how exceptional Liverpool would prove to be defensively in this game. This back four, who have been lambasted all season for being panicky and lacking composure, restricted possibly the best side in Europe at the minute to pot shots at goal resulting in them not having a shot at goal all game. The star of the show was Trent Alexander-Arnold though who coped with the threat of Leroy Sane expertly. He characterised this Liverpool performance and the man in the stand – passionate, defiant and unbeatable.