Kieran Davies on Thursday’s big game and the title race as it now stands.
The biggest game of the season so far was played out at the Etihad this week between Manchester City and Liverpool. Both sets of players, manager and fans will feel their team did enough to take all three points, but it was Guardiola’s side who took the spoils and put themselves back into the title race. While many will laud Pep’s tactics for nullifying Klopp’s sides attacking threat while also penetrating the tightest defence in the league this season, twice, for me, I am not quite sure whether tactics won the game more than performances by individuals. Stand up, Fernandinho. His contribution to this side is hugely underrated and it is no coincidence that the majority if not all of their defeats come when he is not available. He adds strength to, with the exception of Laporte when playing in the centre, a good but not great defence which can be got at. The Brazilian’s protection he offers to this backline is priceless.
In the centre of the park, most of these games between the top teams are settled. Klopp opted for grafters in Wijnaldum, Henderson and Milner. Fernandinho bossed them all. This is not to say Liverpool did not have their moments however. While absorbing City’s pressure they did counter and even had periods where they seemingly had City on the ropes but did not capitalise on these opportunities. At least three goalmouth scrambles could if not should have led to goals and on another day would have. Certain players were left lacking for the Redmen. Lovren is not a first-choice centre back in a title challenging side. Henderson, despite being club captain, does not warrant a first team birth. Fabinho and Keita should have both started. The German needs to invest in some cover or potentially a first team partner for Virgil Van Dijk. Gomez is having a good season and would be first choice but Matip and Lovren are not cover by any stretch of the imagination.
City’s opener was everything that a fit Sergio Aguero is all about. Quick reaction times and seeing something out of nothing. If you want to be critical you could question whether a keeper should ever be beaten at his near post. Yes, it was hit with ferocity, but the angle is that tight that a keeper should not be beaten. Clear chances were few and far between in the main although City will feel they had their fair share if not the lion’s share of half chances. They miss De Bruyne, we all do, anyone would. He is a joy to watch. While Liverpool fans were left scratching their heads on how they hadn’t scored in this game, great play by the full backs led to a tap in for Roberto Firmino. This was their chance. City were rocked, wave after wave of Liverpool attack pummelled the home side. The second goal never came. Leroy Sane did though. Harshly excluded from the German World Cup squad despite an impressive season last time out, his goal showed the quality the youngster is gifted with, giving Alisson no chance in getting a hand to keep the strike out.
This finished the league leaders off. There was not enough time for them to recreate the equaliser they had found so hard to come by earlier. Changing to a more attacking formation, adding Shaqiri and Sturridge to the fray, never really created that one last chance they hoped for. The players looked dejected in having been stripped of their unbeaten status and momentum shifted to the current champions. Having never won the Premier League many question Liverpool’s ability to see it through to the finish. They are four points clear, have played City twice, it is still theirs to lose. The fixture lists show that most of the difficult games you would point towards all take place at Anfield in the second half of the season. As Palace and Leicester showed however, no team can be taken for granted in this league. Despite both Liverpool and City having great depth to their squads now, they both still have a handful of players they need to keep fit for the duration of the season in order to stand any chance of winning this league.
For Klopp’s team, this will test their title credentials. Moments like this are things champions learn from and grow in strength as a result of the experience. Bounce-back-ability is what is needed now. Do Liverpool have it? With the FA Cup interrupting proceedings this weekend, we will have to wait and see although should Wolves take the scalp of Liverpool, all will point to a crisis at Anfield. Brighton will be the true test to see if Jurgen can get his team to forget about that Thursday night in Manchester, take each game as it comes and take his team to dream of that first Premier League title. Both Tottenham and Man City will feel they have a lot to say about that, no doubt this title race will have many twists and turns before the end. Hopefully it will remain tight and we will see a fight for the title like we have never seen before. One thing is for sure, while the media and fans of every club not involved jump on the City bandwagon, Liverpool still hold all the cards in this exciting game of poker.