City show grit to end Liverpool's unbeaten start
In a clash of the champions against the challengers, it was to be last season's Centurions that would run out victors, as they largely dominated their clash with the league leaders, to cut the gap at the top of the table to four points. Heading into the encounter, hosts Manchester City looked to be facing a must-win match, as Jurgen Klopp's side had taken full advantage of their winter stumble, to assail a seven point lead at the summit.
The expectation that they had to get all three points appeared to be well cemented into the minds of Guardiola's players, who shot out of the blocks from the very first whistle, intent to prove that there was still life left in their title defence. In typical fashion, City opted to press the visitors high up the field. Perhaps more surprisingly though, was Liverpool's seeming inability to cope with such pressure on the ball. Stray pass after stray pass flew wide of their intended targets, as the opening quarter of an hour saw the visitors almost shell shocked.
In spite of a nervy beginning, it was to be the league leaders that would enjoy the first clear cut chance of the evening. A cross from the right hand side of the box, courtesy of Trent Alexander-Arnold, deflected off covering City midfielder Fernandinho, and pinged towards goal. Had it not been for the quick reactions of compatriot Ederson, the Brazilian could have been embarrassed. Thankfully, the stopper dived onto the ball, dispersing the unexpected danger.
The brief scare did nothing to knock City off their stride; Guardiola's players continued to push and probe the Liverpool defence, patiently waiting for an opportunity to strike. Then, once more against the run of play, Liverpool almost broke the deadlock. A loose ball forward from Kompany was seized on by Salah, who played Sadio Mané into the penalty area. The Senegalese striker's low effort hit the post, and the rebound caused chaos. A joint effort at a clearance from Stones and Ederson caused the ball to ricochet back towards the City goal, before, just at the last, the centre half recovered to clear the ball off the line.
It is often said that such high level games as these are decided by the finest of margins; well they could not have been any finer, as goal line technology confirmed that Liverpool had come within 11 milimetres of taking the lead!
Nevertheless, City regained control of the match through David Silva and namesake Bernardo, and soon after, their efforts were rewarded. A series of City attacks led to Bernardo Silva picking up the ball on the edge of the penalty area. After dribbling around the advances of Wijnaldum, he rolled the ball down the by line to pick out the near post run of striker Sergio Aguero. In an eerie mirroring of his derby day strike against Manchester United earlier this campaign, Aguero knocked the ball around the covering defender, and volleyed high into the roof of the net. Visiting keeper Alisson barely had time to react, as the ball flew past him at the near post. City had taken a well deserved lead.
As the interval loomed, the match would descend into frantic attacking play. The teams took turns to trade blows against one another, but both rearguards stood firm. City held onto the lead at the break.
The second half began in the same vein as the first, with the hosts clearly intent on making sure that all three points remained in Manchester come full time. Former Liverpool fan favourite Raheem Sterling was unlucky not to get a penalty five minutes after play resumed. After having tricked his way past opponent Andy Robertson in the area, the Englishman seemed to be hauled to the floor. Much to the home side's anger, the referee waved play on.
Both sides followed this action with long range efforts at goal. Fernandinho and Danilo tried their luck for the hosts, while Alexander-Arnold fired back for Liverpool. Nevertheless, all three efforts did nothing to endanger the respective nets at each end of the field.
Finally building up a head of steam in the match, Liverpool levelled the scores with 25 minutes to play. Some lackluster marking at the back post allowed Andy Robertson to steal a march on Danilo, and the Scot squared the diagonal ball across the six yard box, with Roberto Firmino tapping home. Having not really been in the contest, Jurgen Klopp's men were on equal terms once more.
In spite of the set back, hosts City continued to push for the victory. In particular Raheem Sterling was proving a nuisance for his former employers. Just seven minutes after conceding the leveller, the champions had hit the front once again. A rapid-fire counter attack, from Gundogan to Sterling and then all the way across the field to Leroy Sané, City tore through the usually solid Liverpool back line.
Upon being fed the low pass, Sané kept his composure to drill his shot low and hard towards the far post. Evading the stretched arm of Alisson, the ball hit the far post, bounced across the goal line, hitting the other on its way into the back of the net.
The final twenty minutes of the encounter were frenetic, as both sides battled for a share of the spoils. Monsieurs Guardiola and Klopp rang in the changes; the City boss opting to bolster his defence and sure up the result and the Liverpool manager introducing attackers Shaqiri and Sturridge in a bid to pick up at least one point from their nearest rivals.
Alas, it was to be a day for the champions. City stood firm in defence to see out the most crucial of victories, and claw back the gap between themselves and the leaders to four points. In truth, there was only one side that deserved to win the match on the balance of play, and that was Guardiola's team. Liverpool will be disappointed not to at least retain their sizeable advantage at the top of the table, but they did not perform well enough on the night to warrant a share of the points.
So, even though City suffered a mid season stumble, this win for the champions shows that there is still a lot of life left in the title race this season.