Liverpool enhanced in defeat to Manchester City – and may just have been the better team

Updated: 19/04/2024

Invincibles no longer, yet enhanced in defeat. Manchester City inflicted on Liverpool a first loss of the season. Liverpool inflicted on City the more powerful idea that they might just be the better team, the side against which all others must now be measured.

They require the confirmation of a Premier League title to substantiate that impression, of course. Still four points to the good, that margin will sustain them once the disappointment of this mugging in Manchester has left them.

City were run out of shape in the first half here, ragged under the weight of the red swarm. From somewhere City rediscovered enough of their best to take the lead against the run of play and nick the winner on the break. It was a novelty to see City sweat like journeymen, desperate for purchase in a title race that looked to be slipping away over Christmas.

The atmosphere did justice to another place, another time. As well appointed as the Etihad is, on nights like this involving fixtures of this consequence there is an argument for spooling back through time to the more visceral surroundings of Maine Road, a place that revealed a player’s soul. There was no fan tunnel there, no corporate layering, just two teams and a ball, which had a way of stripping a contest to its essentials, blue vs red, winner takes all.

Liverpool unlucky losers

Jurgen Klopp will be frustrated to have lost at the Etihad (Getty Images)

As the match settled the symphonic connectivity that was City’s last year was all Liverpool’s, the ball passing between red shirts as if pre-ordained by a greater authority. The celebrated blue carousel that had become City’s hallmark under Pep Guardiola was scattered by the Premier League’s new power hub.

To truly understand how the ball stayed out of City’s net in the 18th minute we shall have to wait for the verdict of the Oracle at Delphi. Sadio Mane was sliding along the deck in celebration when the ball came back off a post. In his haste to clear John Stones whacked it against a clueless Ederson and performed the most unfeasible act of escapology to hook it clear. Just how unfeasible was revealed by the cameras, which showed the ball the width of a finger from being completely over the line.

The scything move that cracked City wide open was not only an expression of power and beauty. It was a demonstration of the shift in eminence from City to Liverpool. In the recent past the mere presence of David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling was all the comfort City needed. Here they were struggling to stay afloat for much of the opening half.

Liverpool played with the swagger and assurance of a team that knows it’s the goods. They are, in this phase of the Klopp evolution, a beautifully harmonised example of footballing feng shui, all parts bound by a force invisible to us but felt by them.

Close calls

Mo Salah writhes in pain after a reckless challenge from Vincent Kompany (Getty Images)

On another night an exposed Vincent Kompany might have gone for the Kamikaze lunge he inflicted on Mo Salah. You shudder to think how hellish the outcome might have been had Salah not jumped a metre off the deck to avoid the two mad feet coming for him.

And then, as the first half drew came to a close, came Aguero, so often City’s guarantee. Only one player in the world scores that goal, a waspish drive from an acute angle after harvesting Bernardo Silva’s cross. As you might expect the goal was sufficiently restorative to add half a yard of pace to City legs, and for the opening minutes of the second half it fuelled their best spell in the game.

By increments Liverpool recovered shape and poise. The equaliser was flagged in the increased urgency of Liverpool’s attacks. That is was authored by their flying full-backs says much about the Klopp template. Trent Alexander-Arnold cut inside to pick out the advancing Robertson with a looping left-footed pass. Robertson lifted the ball over the stranded City defenders for Roberto Firmino to convert at full stretch with his head and set up a breathless last half hour.

That it should be City and Leroy Sane in particular who would rise in one recidivist flourish shows how easily this game can make a fool out of any. Sane had been erratic at best. None of that mattered when Sterling put the ball on his toes as he advanced towards the box. Sane swung that left peg like is was 2018. Allison and his team were beaten at last.

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