Manchester City 1 Aguero 69’
Liverpool 1 Milner 51’ (pen)
In the end, it might be easier to talk about what didn’t happen in this match.
With Manchester United taking all three points from a struggling Middlesborough prior to this contest, the pressure was on both Liverpool and Manchester City keep the chasing pack at bay with a win. For Jürgen Klopp’s starters, this would be another opportunity to burnish their credentials as the side with the best record against the heavy hitters of the league, while for City, this was a chance to put the disappointment of their Champions League exit behind them.
With a goal apiece and the points shared, neither Liverpool nor City came away with the breathing room that they would have wanted, but neither manager can be entirely dissatisfied with the final result (the officiating might be a different matter - more on that below). It was a testing match played in less-than-ideal conditions, with spells of both good football and bad for both sides, and punctuated with all sorts of action except for the most important variety: a match-winning goal.
The home side started brightly, with their back four just about holding their own against a very high Liverpool press. Raheem Sterling looked determined to silence the away supporters early, but despite constant menace from the City flanks, a series of close offside calls allowed the visitors time to compose themselves while trying to force errors from a rearguard that has had trouble lately keeping the ball out of their own net.
City, for their part, were equally determined to test Liverpool’s concentration and in particular, Ragnar Klavan’s pace. Twenty minutes into the match, and not for the first time, Leroy Sané broke free on the left, only for his attempt to ricochet towards a lurking David Silva. It looked to be an absolutely gilt-edged chance, but somehow the Spaniard’s eventual shot flew tantalizingly wide of Mignolet’s goal, and Liverpool survived.
Minutes later, we saw the first of a number of penalty shouts in this match. Sadio Mané, seizing on a slack pass, stormed forward towards Caballero with only Otamendi in pursuit. Just as the Senegalese forward shaped to shoot, his leg caught Otamendi’s shin and he tumbled to the grass just in front of the keeper. Michael Oliver saw no infraction, and play continued despite Mané’s silent glare towards the referee.
Before the commentators could chime in with their opinions on that non-call, there was another one. This time, it was Georginio Wijnaldum who received the ball on the edge of the area from Clyne, and promptly danced past several defenders before appearing to be wrestled to the ground by Yaya Touré. Again, there was no call from Michael Oliver.
Next, it was City’s turn to get on board the Michael Oliver roller-coaster experience. With half time just minutes away, an incisive through ball from Kevin De Bruyne allowed Silva to send the ball on a platter across the face of the Liverpool goal. Somehow, Aguero and Sterling both failed to connect (though the very, very close attentions of Klavan and Milner might have contributed to that). Even then, Fernandinho was perfectly placed to sweep up the crumbs at the far post, but instead contrived to steer the ball wide. Seconds later, Firmino and Lallana took turns forcing saves from Caballero.
Just as the pulse rates spiked, the proceedings were halted by the half-time whistle. There were no changes from either side, but Liverpool looked the quicker out of their blocks upon the restart. Almost immediately, John Stones was called to make another critical intervention to block a Mané shot after good work from Lallana on the right.
The visitors had their breakthrough when a lofted pass from the Liverpool midfield caught the City back four flat-footed. Roberto Firmino, who had made an excellent run to remain onside, collected the ball and shaped to shoot, but was bundled over by an overzealous Gaël Clichy. The referee didn’t hesitate in pointing to the spot, over the protestations of several players in blue. Milner did what he always does from the spot, and Liverpool had a slender advantage.
From there, it looked as though Liverpool would have a golden opportunity to add to their lead as City struggled to shake off the disappointment of conceding the penalty. Emre Can put in a decidedly improved performance, showing better discipline in picking when to bomb forward and when to provide cover, and more importantly displaying more care in possession. Firmino had a chance to slot in another after being played in on the left, but his finish left much to be desired.
By midway through the second half, a disappointing Yaya Touré was taken off for Bacary Sagna, allowing Fernandinho to slot into a more familiar midfield role, and not coincidentally, City started to find their footing. Inevitably, the equalizer came from Aguero, courtesy of a pinpoint cross from De Bruyne on the right that was perfectly placed to elude a chasing Klavan. City had now seized the momentum, and when Aguero hit the post several minutes later, it had become a question of whether Liverpool would be able to hang on.
Amazingly, there was a golden opportunity for the visitors to score what would surely have been a match-winning goal. Ten minutes from full time, a slick move initiated by Wijnaldum - who was heroic in the middle of the park for Liverpool on this day - resulted in Firmino and Lallana bursting through the City rearguard. From the left, Firmino tapped the ball across for Lallana, who somehow failed to score with the goal gaping and Caballero at his mercy. There would not be a better chance in this match for either team.
Not the best result for Liverpool at this late stage of the season, as it leaves United in a position to knock them out of the top four with Mourinho’s side having played two fewer matches. Next up for Klopp’s crew will be the Merseyside derby, followed by a string of matches in which they will be regarded as favorites. United, for their part, will have to host Chelsea and also visit Arsenal and Tottenham, while their neighbors in Manchester also have matches lined up against the Antonio Conte and Arsène Wenger’s sides. As has been the case all season, Liverpool will have to prove they can win when it’s expected of them.