An afternoon of pouring rain and strong emotions, of irascible and exquisite dramas, of Manchester City fallibility and, if not necessarily sparks of rebirth for Liverpool, at least signals that some heat still remains in the old embers. At the final whistle of a 1–0 Liverpool victory, Jürgen Klopp had been sent off, a refreshed Mohamed Salah had scored the only goal and City’s unbeaten record this season had vanished, leaving Arsenal leading the table by four points.
Perhaps talking about the decline of Liverpool was always exaggerated. After all, he hasn’t lost at home in the league in a year and a half. This is still, Sadio Mané aside, the team that was a week away from last season’s quadruple. Yet there had been a distinct feeling of the end of the cycle. Despite all the talk about refreshing the model, changing the attacking line and rejuvenating the midfield, there were eight players who started the defeat against Arsenal last week and who were present in the opening match of the Champions League campaign. League four years ago. This is a team that has been through a lot together, and when they do, there is always a sense that the mutual understanding that can be achieved through familiarity can combat the threat of stagnation.
But what he produced on Sunday, despite injuries that left him with Joe Gomez in center back and James Milner as right-back, was a resilient performance that in turn revealed that City may not be as ruthless as can be painted. Even Erling Haaland sometimes fails to score.
Although City dominated both possession and chances, Liverpool had their chances in the first half. Diogo Jota headed a Harvey Elliott cross and Andy Robertson fired after Ederson threw an unconvincing punch on a right cross. There were other half chances, crosses not fully executed, final passes not fully played, enough to encourage Liverpool and the rest of the division as well. City could be an even more powerful attacking force this season following the arrival of Haaland, but as Newcastle and Crystal Palace have shown, they are not entirely convincing from a defensive point of view. The greater verticality offered by Haaland’s frankness means that there is less time to build the counter-attack barriers that Pep Guardiola usually uses to establish the control on which his play was previously based.
Liverpool maintained the 4-2-3-1 form that led to the Champions League victory over Rangers, but also the largely chaotic defeat to Arsenal last week. Salah had played on the right at Emirates, while on Sunday he operated in the middle and was far more involved than he had been in any other Premier League game this season. Fabinho is back for Jordan Henderson and he too gave his best performance of the season by far, but the biggest reveal was the Gomez-Milner axis. Milner had fought hard against Phil Foden last season, and Gomez was terrible this season against Napoli, but protected by Elliott’s energy, both of them were exceptional.
The game exploded at the start of the second half, any semblance of control disappeared. There was a surprising five-minute period in which Salah, released by Firmino, was dismissed by a nice save from Ederson, even though a goal kick was given. Foden then brought the ball into the net after a heavy challenge from Haaland on Alisson, only for the goal disallowed for a shot by Haaland on Fabinho. With the stadium brought to the brink of fever, Jota headed the outside of the post, although he was later declared offside. Alisson then made a nice low save to his right to deny Haaland.
The pattern was clear: city domination of the ball, Liverpool repeatedly threatening to slip behind the defensive line. The goal, which came after 76 minutes, could not have been simpler: Alisson rejected a poor free kick from Kevin De Bruyne and long dismissed. Salah, making the most of a strange misjudgment by João Cancelo, much less effective than in most games this season, perhaps because he was used on the right rather than the left, took the ball and, given a second one on one, beat Ederson.
Had substitute Darwin Núñez been more clinical in two other breaks, Liverpool could have won more comfortably. But even though time hit 100, City didn’t really threaten, his inspiration waning as he suffered his first away league defeat since last season’s opening weekend.
Clearly, a match is not enough to say that Liverpool are back, or that City are finished, but some things that seemed certain at the beginning of the game were perhaps less clear at the end. Liverpool still have their teeth and City’s flair for counter-attack, still their Achilles heel, seems more pronounced than ever.
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