Eleven millimetres – no more, no less – was the difference between Manchester City all but relinquishing their Premier League title and them being back in this season’s reckoning. When the time came and the pressure was on, City showed that they can win in a different style featuring heart, spirit and grit. City would not have beaten Liverpool by trying to outplay them but they did by out-fighting them.
There were many sub-plots and dimensions to this match; it was clear that City had to win this to keep any hopes of challenging Liverpool at the top of the table, the pressure was on them. A gap of 10 points would have felt like a chasm, but from the off there was a sense that City were not going to go down without a fight. Reducing the gap from seven points to four ensured the hosts breathed new life into a title race that had been stretched during the festive season.
Tight and ferocious encounter
This was a tight and ferocious encounter where there would have been no qualms had Liverpool taken the spoils instead. It was that type of match, the way a big match should be. This certainly received the hefty build-up and hyperbole treatment but deservedly so, rather than falling flat it presented what most spectators wanted…a title tussle.
It was the emotion in the City performance that was so apparent. They looked like the champions they are with the encouraging atmosphere inside the Etihad urging them on to a raucous victory. It needed to be this way, to beat this Liverpool side – unbeaten in the league this season on a run of nine league wins having just swatted Newcastle and Arsenal aside 4-0 and 5-1 respectively.
There needed to be more to City’s game than simply trying to outmanoeuvre this confident Liverpool team, rather the hosts had to show that they wanted the three points more, and they did.
City’s spirit ends Liverpool’s unbeaten run
Pep Guardiola’s side inflicted Liverpool’s first league defeat with force but even that was only just about enough. Even at the very end – with the stadium clock reading 95 minutes – Liverpool were still pushing, but the City side they were pushing against were stubborn and resolute with Vincent Kompany showing the leadership qualities that have endeared him at the club for what seems like an eternity.
But never were City’s nerves frayed as much as when John Stones astonishingly cleared the ball off the line following a rebounded clearance of his own goalkeeper when the game was goalless. The goal-line technology showed Stones did so before the remaining 11 millimetres of the ball crossed the line. Such are the fine margins in such high-stake matches. It is rather crude to suggest that league titles depend upon such moments, but they do.
That moment in particular would have given Liverpool the lead and history suggests that they are near impossible to beg back when ahead, especially when a draw would have been enough for them. They are all unknowns, as is how Liverpool respond to their first major blip of the season. The next game is always the most important, and that will be the case more so than ever as Jurgen Klopp’s side aim to keep City and Tottenham, who are six points behind, at bay.
Fine margins - it could have gone either way
There were question marks around some aspects of this game though. Despite Kompany’s fine defensive performance in which he pre-empted most of the balls that were aimed towards him, should he have been sent off in the first half for a two-footed lunge on Mohamed Salah?
Also should Liverpool have been less conservative and try to increase the gap to 10 points with more urgency? The final 10 minutes or so showed that they were capable of getting in behind City, and if they had attempted to go for it earlier then the scoreline could have been different.
In part that was down to the midfield that Klopp chosen; it was combative rather than creative with James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson all playing decently but in the same manner and mould. Liverpool lacked creativity in midfield, forcing the front three to manufacture their own chances, which for some time they struggled with. Fernandinho dominated the midfield area and it wasn’t until Xherdan Shaqiri came off the substitutes bench were Liverpool able to stretch City.
But more than Liverpool losing this game, it was City winning it, albeit only just. Sergio Aguero’s fine finish from a tight angle was a moment of brilliance whilst Leroy Sane’s shot that hit the inside of the far post before running behind the goalline was difficult to stop. The two goals came at key times for City and quelled the growing pressure that the visitors were exerting.
Intense title tussle was an intriguing spectacle
Although the quality of the game was not the same as when either side are able to recite their full repertoire to some less versed side further down the league, it had the intent, aggression and sharp cohesion that made it thrilling for supporters either side of the divide. Maybe the passes were not as accurate as they should have been, or the control of the ball was not as precise as usual but it came down to owning the ball and also the match, and that is where City excelled.
Roberto Firmino’s equaliser for Liverpool midway through the second half would have derailed many opponents but City were not going to wilt under the pressure. A draw would have felt like a grievous setback for the reigning champions and it was the second half spell after that goal when the hosts showed their true togetherness.
The competitive courage to conjure Sane’s decisive goal along with the fighting-to-the-end spirit that was displayed during the nerve-shredding finale when Virgil Van Dijk was deployed as an extra striker and Liverpool pumped balls towards Ederson’s goal set City apart on this occasion.
At the final whistle, if there was any doubt as to this games importance, Guardiola let out a huge roar of relief. His players were emotive, hugging and clasping their fists in defiance; it had been intense and tense but they had shown the fighting spirit and the gritty qualities to win it.