The highest quality of football, perhaps anywhere in the world, can now be found in the North-West of England. Sunday’s clash between Manchester City and Liverpool was expected to offer insight as to which city boasts the very best club side the world has to offer. Yet when the speculation ceased and the endless pre-match hypotheticals had been played out, we were seemingly left with a tactical stalemate, with goalscoring chances coming at a particular premium after the interval.
In a frenetic first half, Roberto Firmino found himself one on one with Ederson early on, albeit well to the side of the penalty area and was swiftly closed down. Kyle Walker then clumsily stepped into the path of Sadio Mane within 15 minutes to concede a penalty which Mo Salah handily converted. This represented Liverpool’s reward for a dominant opening spell, characterised by a direct style, with plenty of long balls towards the front three.
City then settled themselves with a spell of patient possession, finding Liverpool happier to trade intensity in the midfield press for a more solid defensive structure, a symptom perhaps of their loss in confidence without the talismanic Virgil Van Dyke.
Just past the half-hour mark Kevin De Bruyne found Gabriel Jesus with a well-weighted diagonal pass across the penalty area, leaving Trent Alexander-Arnold as the sole defender in play. With his back to goal, Jesus’s sublime first touch allowed him to deftly turn Trent Alexander-Arnold and finish into the bottom corner for the equaliser.
On the cusp of half time, Joe Gomez was unfortunate to concede a penalty from De Bruyne’s cross, his attempt to pull a stabilising arm out of the way deemed too unnatural for VAR officials to let slide. De Bruyne struck with his trademark power and direction, the direction unfortunately on this occasion being too far to the left. This was the low moment of what De Bruyne will surely regard as a frustrating evening, as he struggled to hit the target with a variety of shots, largely from outside the penalty area.
In the second half, chances were at more of a premium, with Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum doing a good job of preventing openings for City, who switched to attempting to overload the flanks without great success against a disciplined Liverpool defence. For all their defensive strength, Liverpool struggled for possession in City’s half, with the fullbacks often failing to materialise on the overlap, leaving Salah and Mané isolated.
Liverpool’s best opportunity after the break came from a raking Henderson pass from deep, latched onto by Mané who found himself with nowhere to go inside the penalty area. He passed to Salah who hesitated, eventually finding Alexander-Arnold, whose shot momentarily crept underneath Ederson, with Diogo Jota bearing down for a tap in only for City’s Brazilian keeper to redeem himself.
Ultimately, Liverpool’s more direct approach was insufficient to overcome a solid defensive performance from Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte, who conducted the defensive line well in order to stifle Liverpool’s most effective sources of attack.
City had the majority of openings, thanks in part to De Bruyne’s phenomenal work rate higher up the pitch. A late twist threatened when Jesus found himself unmarked for a free header from Ferran Torres’ Cross, only for the Brazilian to fail to hit the target, meaning the full-time whistle blew without either team proving capable of breaking the deadlock.
Jurgen Klopp will likely be the happier of the two managers after forcing his closest rivals to drop two points at home and preserving his advantage in the table. Although the fireworks may have petered out, what we witnessed was a battle between the two best managers of their generation, who know each other’s game plans inside out.
Is facing Manchester City at the Etihad is the most difficult game in world football, as Klopp stated before the game? For Liverpool at least, perhaps so.
Image: wendy1704 via Pixabaty