Well, we all waited for this evening and it finally came. Liverpool hosted Manchester City at Anfield, in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals.
Jurgen Klopp had plenty to worry about regarding injuries. Joel Matip is out for the season, Joe Gomez was out, Ragnar Klavan was out, Adam Lallana and Emre Can were also out. Although the team were more-less used to playing without Lallana and can make do without Can, the absence of no less than three centre-backs is always something to worry about – for any team.
This is the team that the manager put together:
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) April 4, 2018
Pep Guardiola was bereft of the attacking threat of Sergio Aguero. Also, he decided to leave out Raheem Sterling out of the starting XI, pushing Kevin De Bruyne out on the right wing and giving Ilkay Gundogan the place in midfield.
How we're lining-up at Anfield tonight! 🙌
City XI | Ederson, Walker, Kompany (C), Otamendi, Laporte, Fernandinho, Silva, De Bruyne, Gundogan, Sane, Jesus
— Manchester City (@ManCity) April 4, 2018
The First Half
Liverpool came into the game strong and attacked first, but City quickly consolidated and tried to hit back. It was an even contest until the 12th minute.
That’s when City took a corner from which a fantastic Liverpool counterattack ensued. Kyle Walker lost the ball and James Milner sent Mohamed Salah “running down the wing“. Salah cut inside and employed Roberto Firmino who broke into the box and took a low shot. Ederson Moraes saved it but couldn’t hold on to it, Walker failed to clear as Firmino poked it from behind him – straight to Salah on the edge of six yards. Enough said.
Only a minute later City could have retaliated in the same manner. Liverpool had a free-kick deep in City’s half and a countattack sprang to life. David Silva started it and employed Leroy Sane who burst forward. At one point, the visitors had a three-on-two situation, but Sane chose a wrong option at a crucial moment – a shot from the edge of the box, low and wide.
They came forward again two minutes later, but Andy Robertson did splendidly to stop De Bruyne.
After that, Liverpool sprang into relentless high pressing. In the 19th minute, Jordan Henderson won possession and launched a promising attack, but Salah got caught offside.
Nevertheless, the Reds now moved their lines forward and attacked. Minute 20 had just expired when Firmino was mowed down in front of City’s box, but referee Felix Brych waved play on. A scramble for the ball ensued in which the joint efforts of Henderson and Mane somehow got the ball to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Ox smacked it home, almost scraping the post, past the helpless Ederson and into the net.
De Bruyne tried to take responsibility throughout the game, as the visiting team’s main creative force this whole season, but the Reds were smartly closing his efforts down. There was a moment that looked dangerous at first when he lobbed the ball behind Liverpool’s back line for Gundogan to run onto, but Loris Karius had been waiting for exactly that and calmly stepped out to claim the ball.
Again, as City tried to get forward, Liverpool pressed all over the pitch and kept their opponents shaken up. After Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross almost found the head of Mane inside six yards in the 28th minute, the 31st saw the Reds extend their lead further.
A fantastic team effort in the middle of the pitch contrived to Nicolas Otamendi getting dispossessed and Firmino picking it up. The Brazilian engaged Salah on the right, whose shot was initially blocked but he picked it up again. This time he aimed a lovely cross towards the far post; Mane was the best in the air and slammed it into the net.
Immediately afterwards, the Senegalese stepped off the pitch to get some medical assistance but he quickly came back on.
Minute 35 was passing when Robertson defended well in his own half, took the ball and stormed into City’s box, but Fernandinho caught up with him at the last second and blocked his shot. A deliberate foul on Robertson by Gabriel Jesus two minutes later clearly spoke of frustration, but there was no booking.
Oxlade-Chamberlain then did well to turn away from Vincent Kompany and break forward, but Aymeric Laporte produced a fine tackle to save City further first-half embarrassment.
For the rest of the half there was little excitement: a clever interception by Virgil van Dijk on Silva’s pass for Jesus, a poor cross from De Bruyne from a free-kick, and a shot from range that went comfortably wide from Otamendi.
But in the last seconds of the half, the Argentinian centre-back got booked for a very late challenge on Firmino. The resulting free-kick was swung in by Oxlade-Chamberlain and van Dijk was the best in the air, but his header went wide.
The Second Half
With no other option left to them, Guardiola’s team came into the second half at full throttle. The Reds defended well and waited for an opportunity to hit on the counter, and this was the way of things for much of the second period.
Five minutes after the break, a corner by Silva was headed wide by Otamendi. Soon afterwards, a cross by De Bruyne from the right was handled uncharacteristically irresponsibly by van Dijk, and the ball found its way to Sane on the left who slammed it across but found no-one.
In the 52nd minute, Salah, who had complained of an injury a minute earlier, left the pitch and left the fans worried. Georginio Wijnaldum came on, and took up the place of Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield, while the Englishman moved to the wing.
Manchester City were giving it a proper go at this point, but Liverpool still defended very well. A low cross by De Bruyne was cleared right in front of the incoming Silva, and then a promising move by City was ruined by Sane. Meanwhile, in the 57th minute, Gundogan left the pitch and Raheem Sterling came on, with De Bruyne now taking up his favorite position in midfield.
Once there, it was very interesting to see the Belgian maestro constantly finding space between the lines to receive the ball and orchestrating moves. A truly marvelous player – one that got away, sadly.
In the 63rd minute, he sent a long pass to the left for Sane to chase, and Alexander-Arnold was caught napping. Sane escaped down the flank and pulled it back for the incoming Silva, but Dejan Lovren made a crucial interception.
The visitors were slowly getting the run of play under their control as Liverpool started looking like they could use another pair of fresh legs on the pitch. Klopp was quick to notice it, and with 19 minutes to go, Firmino came off to make way for Dominic Solanke.
It was a good opportunity for the young striker to get some feeling of such a huge game. He wasn’t on the pitch a full minute when he got involved in a very promising counterattack. Wijnaldum managed to hold on to the ball in the middle of the pitch and sent a pass that prompted a diagonal run to the right from Solanke. Then Solanke pulled it back for Mane in a good position, but under pressure from Walker, Mane failed to connect with the ball properly.
City attacked again, and Liverpool still defended well. Jesus couldn’t direct a Sterling cross on target, Milner did some fantastic defensive work to stop Sane in the box, Sterling appealed for a handball penalty after Robertson slid on the ground to block his cross, and both De Bruyne and Jesus earned yellow cards for a foul on Mane and protesting for a foul given on Milner, respectively.
Five minutes from time, a tired-looking Oxlade-Chamberlain was replaced by Alberto Moreno. The Spaniard played on the left wing and Mane moved to the right.
A minute later, Henderson picked up a yellow card for a foul on Sterling. Though a foul on Sterling at Anfield is always understandable, this booking might have significant consequences if Emre Can isn’t fit for the rematch at the Etihad in six days – the captain will now miss that game.
Sterling himself picked up a booking in injury time for a foul on Wijnaldum, and that was it for this game.
It was a fine performance and a fantastic result against a top team, a result that puts Liverpool in the driving seat for semifinals qualification. On the other hand, we will impatiently await the news on Salah’s injury, and as has been already said, Henderson’s suspension comes at a very bad time with Can and Lallana injured.
Be that as it may, Liverpool have once again proved that they have what it takes to beat Manchester City. Let’s hope we celebrate going through to the Champions League semifinal next week.
In the meantime, there’s a small matter of beating some small team from across the park on Saturday. City are no better off in that aspect, as they too have a small team from across the park to beat in a game that would in that case see them crowned England champions.
We walk on.