In September, Manchester City beat Liverpool 5-0 in the Premier League at the Etihad. The sides have met twice since with City losing both. The corresponding fixture was at least back and forth. Yesterday’s Champions League first leg at Anfield was just embarrassing.
But for Liverpool, Manchester City would be coasting towards an Invincible Premier League campaign. They would be champions now, rather than needing to confirm it with a victory over United in the Derby at the weekend. Instead, Jurgen Klopp’s Reds ended their unbeaten run. As fate would have it, Manchester City was drawn against their Premier League rivals in the Champions League quarter-final. Fireworks were expected and delivered.
Anfield was held spellbound in its first Champions League quarterfinal in 11 years. The Reds faithful relished every moment. They cheered and chanted at alarming decibels as their team trounced their opponent from Manchester 3-0. The only thing to tarnish the victory was their attack on the City travel coach when it arrived.
Mo Salah set the tone. He buzzed into the box and benefited from a Roberto Firmino pass to blast home the opener. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain proved doubters wrong again. The Englishman launched a missile into the inside-netting, past a stunned Ederson Moraes from 20 yards. Sadio Mane completed the rout thanks to Mo Salah’s cross. The Senegalese jumped highest to hammer home a bullet header. The game was over in 31 minutes of breathtaking football. For the remaining 62, Manchester City chased shadows.
Pep Guardiola’s team was stifled from the wings. Usually their strong point, Raheem Sterling was benched and Leroy Sane, who played from the left wing, had no support from Aymeric Laporte at left back. Sterling’s replacement, Ilkay Gundogan offered little. Guardiola’s only sub on the night was Gundogan for Sterling. It was too little too late.
Jurgen Klopp’s better head-to-head record against Guardiola stood firm. Key to that achievement was the incredible organisation in Liverpool’s rearguard. Dejan Lovren and Virgil van Dijk soaked up all the pressure in the middle. Trent Alexander-Arnold earned a fourth given name by using his pace and skill to neutralise Sane on the wing. They made City’s attack look more like West Brom’s, a bit ironic when you consider they did the reverse in the FA Cup.
It was only the third time this season Manchester City finished a game without registering a goal. Worse, it was the first time since October 2016 that City failed to register a shot on target.
City’s defence was subpar. They were ripped apart by incessant running and movement from Liverpool’s front trio. Aymeric Laporte at left-back vs Salah produced a goal and an assist for Europe’s second-leading scorer. Only his 52nd-minute injury afforded City a breather. It also proved that Pep Guardiola rarely makes defensive adjustments to face opponents because he doesn’t know how.
Klopp can use his side’s performance as a reference, not just for next week’s second leg, but for the remainder of the season and into next.
There were crucial individual performances from almost every Liverpool player. Alexander-Arnold’s play, I mentioned. Andrew Robertson did a similar job with Gundogan on the right. James Milner culminated a fine performance by bagging his seventh Champions League assist this season. Salah continued his prolific season. Mane scored his seventh in as many games. Even Dominic Solanke caused problems for City after spelling Firmino.
Most important, even though Liverpool slowed in the second half, they kept the Sky Blues from claiming a much-needed away goal. The 3-0 scoreline puts all the pressure on City. The Merseysiders are now the Champions League top-scorers this season with 31 goals. If Guardiola can’t fashion a miracle comeback, how soon will critics start calling a season in which he ran away and hid with the Premier League title a failure? The FA Cup was frittered away. The League Cup is both a minor trinket and in the past. City’s season was to be defined by the Champions League.
In fairness, it hasn’t been. It’s been defined by Liverpool.