With seven 2018/19 Premier League rounds done and dusted, the eighth one brought what was likely the most anticipated match of the season. Prior to the term’s start, many people saw Liverpool and Manchester City as the main favorites for the title. Not much has changed on that front, except perhaps that Chelsea and Arsenal seem to be putting their names forward as well at the moment.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Back to City’s visit to Anfield.
With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana out of the picture, Jurgen Klopp’s biggest concern was if Naby Keia would recover in time from what appeared to be a back-cramp, a problem that forced him out of Liverpool’s Champions League defeat in Naples in midweek. In the end, the Guinean made the bench, with Trent Alexander-Arnold joining him there as Joe Gomez moved to the right defensive flank and Dejan Lovren came in.
Pep Guardiola on the other hand had a serious left-back issue. Benjamin Mendy and Fabian Delph have both been out recently, and he has been therefore forced to deploy centre-back Aymeric Laporte on that defensive flank. Mendy was, however, ready to play. Ilkay Gundogan wasn’t.
But for the Catalan coach the main issue was the lack of Kevin De Bruyne. Even though the Belgian midfielder has started training after a relatively long injury lay-off, the Anfield trip came too soon for him.
The First Half
As expected, both teams came out aggressively. Liverpool attacked early through Salah on the right but City defended well, before Mahrez’s through pass for Aguero caught the Argentinian striker offside. In the fourth minute Salah was at it again and after a mini-game of head-tennis, he fooled Stones and fired wide.
The Reds pressed high as is their way, hoping to push City into a mistake and win the ball as early as possible. Henderson was successful on the halfway line and the ball found its way to Mane, but the Senegalese lost his bearing on the edge of the box. He almost made amends by nicely tricking City defence on the left flank a minute later but his cross for Salah on the far post was intercepted. Robertson was also giving Walker a lot to think about on the that side, and Gomez wasn’t much kinder on Mendy on the other.
It’s fair to say Liverpool completely dominated the early stages. It was painfully obvious, from a City point of view, that their team wasn’t used to playing opponents of this quality. However, Sterling caused a few problems in the box coming in from the left in the 14th minute, but Gomez stopped him. As the Reds quickly charged froward, Laporte put in a fantastic last-ditch tackle to intercept a pass by Milner that would have sent Salah one-on-one with Ederson. A lobbed pass by Henderson soon had the Egyptian running in behind again, but Ederson was out in time.
Without De Bruyne on the pitch, David Silva was finding it hard to influence the game much. Bernardo Silva is a good player, great with the ball at his feet, but not quite on that level. As a result, Sterling and Mahrez mostly had to try and make things happen, and it wasn’t easy for them either.
But the visitors managed to raise their game around the 20th minute and after a great clearance from Lovren, Gomez made a horrible mistake and sent the ball straight to the feet of Aguero some seven yards from Alisson. After contact with Lovren, Aguero fell down inside the box but got up straight away and tried to beat the Croat, but Lovren was once again impeccable.
As City slowly found their feet and kept the ball for longer spells, they looked to poke a hole somewhere in Liverpool’s lines, but there simply weren’t any options to do so. They were, however, good at counterpressing and winning the ball quickly, which made their possession game possible. Still, the Reds weren’t ruffled at all.
They were ruffled, however, in the 28th minute when Milner sat down requiring medical assistance. It seems the former City player felt his hamstring after a duel with Walker, and he had to leave the pitch. Naby Keita came on.
With 32 minutes gone, another brilliant tackle from Laporte stopped a cunning flick by Firmino towards Salah. A minute later tension mounted as Fernandinho brought down Mane with a cynical tackle from behind in the middle of the park. Referee Martin Atkinson spoke to the Brazilian midfielder but the cards surprisingly stayed in his pockets.
City turned up the volume as halftime approached. In the 37th minute, a great combination down the left involving Mendy, Sterling and David Silva saw the Spaniard come to the edge of six yards, but he was stopped there by van Dijk. Henderson was lucky to escape being booked for a rough foul on Bernardo Silva two minutes before the break, and City had a free-kick at 40 yards from which they tried something probably from the training ground, but it failed.
The Second Half
The battle continued as it had left off. Both teams played with a lot of energy and the ball was moving quickly.
The first moment that offered some excitement after the break came in the 49th minute as a pin-point diagonal by Henderson found Gomez (of all people) on the edge of the box and the defender fired one, but a City player got in his way in time.
There was a slight change in tactics by both teams. David Silva was very far up when Liverpool had the ball, practically playing as another striker and helping Aguero with pressing, while at the other end Wijnaldum seemed to be making more runs into the box.
In the 55th minute Mahrez gave Robertson the slip and entered the box down the byline and pulled a low cross back towards David Silva, but van Dijk was in the right place to deal with it. Soon afterwards Atkinson pulled the first yellow card out as Aguero hit Henderson with a late tackle.
On the hour, City had a strong penalty appeal denied as Fernandinho screamed at Atkinson, claiming van Dijk had handled a Sterling cross from a corner, but the referee gave a foul the other way as the Brazilian had pulled the Liverpool centre-back down from behind.
Some nonchalant play between Keita nad Robertson allowed Mahrez to get into a chance again, but his shot was feeble. Salah returned the favor at the other end straight away from around 15 yards.
But the Egyptian managed to fool Mendy and get past him in the next attack, forcing the City left back to pull him from behind and get booked. The free-kick was taken well by Henderson but the visitors cleared it.
With 65 minutes gone, Aguero left the pitch having played his 10th game at Anfield without a single win, without a single goal. Gabriel Jesus came on.
Booked just a few minutes earlier, Mendy was very lucky to stay on the pitch just a few seconds later as he deliberately brought down Gomez wide on Liverpool’s right.
In the 69th minute, Alisson quickly took a goal-kick and gave the ball to Henderson, who immediately sent Salah running with a long pass. Salah controlled it with his right foot on the edge of the box and took a shot with his left, but could get near the target.
Three minutes later, Firmino, who had gone invisible, made way for Daniel Sturridge.
A couple of minutes of reckless play from both sets of players followed after which Jesus had a run at Lovren, but Lovren made a brilliant tackle once more.
City turned up the volume again and Alisson was called upon to thwart attempts first from Bernardo Silva and then from Mahrez, before Sterling made way for Leroy Sane.
Jesus managed to turn around Gomez and entered the box. He then fooled Lovren but like Aguero, he went down after a slight contact from the centre-back. Atkinson wouldn’t hear of it.
Introducing fresh attackers was clearly a plan of Guardiola’s to exploit the tired legs of defenders, but the calmness of the Reds’ back line sometimes seemed to annoy both the City players and their manager. But the visitors pressed on still as the game entered the last 10 minutes.
Going forward, Liverpool players seemed to have lost a bit of focus. Passes down flanks that are usually so effective for them were mostly inaccurate. Once they did get up the pitch the referee managed to miss a Fernandinho elbow into Mane’s neck, but he didn’t miss a slightly late tackle by van Dijk on Sane inside the box in the 85th minute.
In the absence of Aguero Riyad Mahrez stepped up, placed the ball on the penalty spot and blasted it over the bar.
Speaking in an interview after the game, van Dijk admitted the penalty was rightly given, and that he felt extremely relieved after seeing it squandered by Mahrez.
A couple of minutes of Liverpool pressure followed and ended with Atkinson again failing to give a foul on Mane. Around 60 seconds later the referee pulled the play back in City’s favor and booked Wijnaldum for something only he had seen.
But the Reds charged again as the game entered the stoppage time. They kept the ball in City’s half and launched it into the box a few times, but the visitors defended well.
To assure his team would have the last attack, Ederson took over 20 seconds to take a free-kick in the last minute but Atkinson once again saw nothing wrong. That was, however, all the Brazilian ‘keeper could do as his teammates messed it up and the game was over.
This was another Liverpool game that ended with a fair result. Both teams had their periods of domination and both had their moments of brilliance, but apart from the missed Mahrez penalty, neither created a clear-cut chance throughout the contest. It may sound strange, but this time the defences of Liverpool and Manchester City got the better of their attacks.
After this draw and Chelsea’s convincing win away to Southampton, there are now three teams level on points at the top of the table with eight rounds played, with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur close behind.
Even though this was a clash against one of the best teams in Europe, it’s now a four-game winless run for Liverpool.
However, there’s no real reason for concern at this point. An incredibly hard period is behind Klopp and the lads – Spurs away, PSG and Napoli in the Champions League, Chelsea in the League Cup and the Premier League, and now Manchester City.
Next up – international break. And then – Huddersfield Town.
We Walk On.