Having won 3-0 in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal at Anfield, Liverpool traveled to the Etihad for the rematch against Manchester City.
In what was rightly described as the biggest game of the season so far, manager Jurgen Klopp had some big issues in putting the team together. No Emre Can, Adam Lallana, Joe Gomez or Joel Matip (injured) and no captain Jordan Henderson (suspended). Given that Nathaniel Clyne only recently came back from long-term injury, the starting XI picked it self:
Pep Guardiola’s team could have officially confirmed the winning of the Premier League title on Saturday, and it would have been a nice way to ease the pain of the first-leg defeat. All they had to do was beat Manchester United at home, but after utter domination in the first half, they underestimated Jose Mourinho’s team in the second and it naturally came back to haunt them. Now, they were planning to stop the rot by performing a small miracle and knocking the Reds out of the Champions League. It was hardly surprising therefore to see the Catalan send out an incredibly offensive line-up:
The First Half
It often happens when Liverpool play a huge game like this, the start turns into a nightmare. So it was again.
Manchester City came out guns blazing and it took them less than two minutes to take the lead.
Virgil van Dijk lost the ball under foul from Raheem Sterling, but the foul wasn’t given. Kevin De Bruyne quickly gave it back to Strling who squared into the box. As van Dijk was taken out of play a moment earlier, it was relatively easy for Gabriel Jesus to find space and routinely tap it in.
Such an early shock did plenty to destabilize the Reds. They were ineffective in pressing as well as in possession, and it wasn’t very hard for the fully charged City to take full control of the game.
They kept the ball, yet carried it forward quickly, breaking through Liverpool’s lines with ease. David Silva and De Bruyne played their usual game, spraying passes left to Sane or right to Bernardo Silva, and both wingers were heavily involved in their attacks. Sterling floated in a No.10 position, popping up and offering himself wherever needed. Liverpool were completely on the ropes throughout the half.
When they moved forward, Klopp’s men seemed like they weren’t themselves. No focus, no calmness, just nerves, misplaced passes and an occasional missed tackle. One such moment in the 13th minute earned Mane a booking. However, Ederson Moraes thought himself called upon to deal out justice and started pushing Mane and yelling at him. The City goalkeeper was obviously trying to provoke a repeat of Mane’s punishment at the Etihad early in the season, but he earned himself a yellow card instead.
The home team attacked, the visitors defended. Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold were having a trying time, but Dejan Lovren and van Dijk between them were fantastic. Strong and composed, the centre-back duo were having a great game.
Around the half-hour mark, another pair of yellow cards. First, Alexander-Arnold for a foul on Sane, and then Bernardo Silva for protest. The winger took a shot from just inside the box, and the ball hit Milner in the hip and arm at the same time, and Silva was furious that a penalty wasn’t given even though the lack of intention from Milner was rather obvious.
Three minutes later it was Sterling’s turn to appeal for a spot-kick after duel with Robertson, but there was very little in it. Then Liverpool moved forward, but they lost the ball quickly and Firmino was forced to pull De Bruyne down to stop a counterattack, and got booked for it.
In the 36th minute David Silva sent a pass for Jesus behind Liverpool’s back line but Robertson got there first and cleared as far as Fernandinho. The Brazilian tried his luck from range and missed the target. Then Bernardo Silva had a go from a tight angle, but Robertson was there to block it.
A rare first-half Liverpool attack followed as Oxlade-Chamberlain got into shooting range but his shot was very feeble and easily saved. Then Lovren prevented B. Silva from scoring by sticking his head out and diverting the shot onto the post. It was very close.
Three minutes before the break, karma struck. De Bruyne lifted the ball into the box, Karius came out and punched out, but his clearance bounced off Milner and fell for Sane who placed it into the net and started celebrating. Then, he stopped short as he noticed the linesman’s flag raised for offside. A mistake by the officials, just as much as it was in the 2nd minute when they failed to give a foul by Sterling on van Dijk thus allowing City to score the opener.
Liverpool’s best move of the half came in its dying seconds. Firmino and Salah combined well in City’s half, Oxlade-Chamberlain got involved, played a one-two with Salah and went around Ederson, but he couldn’t hit the target from a very tight angle.
The Second Half
Manchester City came back to the second half without their manager. During the break, Guardiola protested strongly with referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz and got himself sent off.
Liverpool were looking much more stable. The break obviously did them a world of good, helping them regain composure. City were still in control of the ball, but their possession seemed far less effective. There was no penetration. Their wingers weren’t giving Liverpool’s fullbacks trouble anymore. Bernardo Silva couldn’t get past Robertson nohow, Sane kept getting caught offside, and Jesus was mostly invisible between Lovren and van Dijk. Their midfielders grew impatient with the lack of options ahead and started rushing their passes, often sending them wide of the mark. And then, lightning struck.
Oxlade-Chamberlain sent a nice diagonal pass to Salah, and the Egyptian extended it to the right for Mane. Mane burst into the box and passed between Laporte and Fernandinho. Fernandinho then tried to grab his leg which gave Ederson the split-second moment he needed to get down and dispossess Mane, but Salah was there to pick it up. He moved to the left to get clear of Ederson, and chipped it over Otamendi who was the only obstacle between Salah and the empty net. As cool a finish as you like.
Three minutes later Firmino wasted a good opportunity but City were now a different team. They lacked any drive, any belief they could still go through, and their attacks became second-rate.
With 65 minutes gone, van Dijk was booked after a small spark with Sterling. A minute later, David Silva made way for Sergio Aguero.
City’s next attack looked promising. A pass by De Bruyne into the box for Sterling was intercepted. Aguero picked it up and tried to employ B. Silva but his pass was misplaced. Then De Bruyne and Laporte tried from range in quick succession, but their shots were blocked by Milner and Lovren, respectively.
In the 74th minute, Bernardo Silva went off and Ilkay Gundogan came on.
Three minutes later, it was all over. Otamendi was far too casual in his own half and Firmino took advantage of it. He cleverly dispossessed the Argentine centre-back, entered the box unchallenged, faced Ederson and coolly slotted into the far bottom corner, off the post and into the net.
At that moment, the game died. It fell completely into the hands of Liverpool as City players realized they would now need to score four more in just over ten minutes. It simply wasn’t going to happen. To their credit, they still went forward, but their attacks were getting less dangerous by the minute. Blocked shots from range and and a few offside positions was all they had to show for their effort in the closing stages of the game.
To increase the hill they had to try and climb, Klopp then took out Firmino and Alexander-Arnold in the 81st minute and sent in Ragnar Klavan and Nathaniel Clyne. A minute before the 90 were up, Salah went off and Danny Ings came on.
Seeing City’s misery and judging it needless, the referee prolonged the game by only two minutes and blew the final whistle as soon as they were up.
Well, after a decade, Liverpool are in the semifinals of the Champions League.
In the other quarterfinal of the evening, Salah’s former club AS Roma have pulled off an amazing achievement by knocking out Barcelona.The Catalans had a 4-1 advantage from the first leg but it ended 3-0 in Rome, and Roma are through on away goals.
The semifinal draw is on Friday, and while all our minds will now be on the Champions League, Klopp and the lads will still have to think about Bournemouth coming to Anfield on Saturday. The Premier League is still running and top-four placement is still to be secured.
Now rejoice ye Red in heart, because Liverpool are in the Champions League semifinals.
We walk on.