Manchester City 1 Jesus 3’
Liverpool 2 Salah 57’, Firmino 77’
Jürgen Klopp’s men displayed once more their chameleonic ability to adapt their strategy to the opposition, putting on a resolute defensive performance to suck the air out of their illustrious opponents before putting them to the sword.
Despite the massively impressive performance and comfortable lead earned in the first leg, the residual sensation of past leads given away cheaply combined with the formidable attacking talent at Pep Guardiola’s disposal to provide plenty of nerves for Reds fans ahead of the match.
Those nerves were violently triggered immediately after kick-off, as Virgil van Dijk, under pressure and perhaps fouled by Raheem Sterling, played a terrible pass down the centre of the pitch, where Fernandinho collected and slid a ball down van Dijk’s channel for Sterling. The former Red cut it back for Gabriel Jesus to tuck home, and three minutes into the match City had begun what instantly felt like it would be a devastating comeback.
Guardiola threw what he had at the visitors, and only Nicolás Otamendi stayed back when the Citizens attacked, as both Kyle Walker and to a lesser extent Aymeric Laporte moved up the pitch to snuff out any Liverpool counters. It looked similar to the Manchester City of six months ago, and the Reds were unable to get a hold of the ball or do anything useful with it when they did. Similarly, the three-man pressing unit of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané was utterly ineffective, and were easily bypassed time and time again.
Despite their dominance, however, the hosts struggled to create clear scoring chances, just as they had in the second half of the first leg, and while they were allowed to pass the ball into the wide areas and cross into the box nearly at will, the Red wall did a terrific job of clearing their lines when necessary, staving off the waves of attack.
A dangerous Sterling cross was cut out by Dejan Lovren on twenty minutes, and Loris Karius did well to punch away a David Silva cross on the half hour mark, seeing his defenders close down and block consecutive shots from Bernardo Silva. The defense was bending, but not breaking.
The Reds had their first shot five minutes from the whistle, as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain tested Ederson from 20 yards, before the hosts went close minutes later, with Bernardo Silva hitting the post from distance. City ramped up the pressure in the late stages of the half, and should’ve had a second goal when Karius came out to punch away a chipped pass. The ball bounced back into the area to an offsides Leroy Sané who touched it home, but as it had come off James Milner rather than Silva, the German’s position was irrelevant, and the goal should have stood.
In the dying seconds of the half, Liverpool strung together an excellent three-man counter attack, culminating in an effort from Oxlade-Chamberlain, but the Englishman couldn’t keep his swiveling effort from a narrow angle under the bar.
As the teams headed off the pitch, Pep Guardiola chose to pick a fight with referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, and got himself sent to the stands for his trouble. Whether it was the loss of their charismatic leader, the lack of tactical guidance from the bench, or simply physical exhaustion, the City side that came out for the second half was clearly diminished. The press that had kept Liverpool besieged for the majority of the first half suddenly was a step off, and the Reds took control.
Ten minutes into the half, the tie was settled. A spell of possession saw Oxlade-Chamberlain find Salah, who played in Mané. The Senegalese attacker’s touch took him past City’s centre-backs, and he was partially brought down by Otamendi. Ederson pounced on the loose ball, but spilled it in the fracas, and Salah was on hand to expertly chip his 39th goal of the season over a sliding Otamendi from six yards out.
If there had been any air left in the Sky Blue balloon, it was gone now. The visitors allowed their opponents to have the ball, but there was no penetration, nor much in the way of genuine ambition from the hosts. The half ticked on, with both sides going through the motions, before Firmino robbed Otamendi fifteen minutes from time. The Brazilian simply took the ball away from the Argentinian, strode into the City box, and buried the ball in the far corner, taking his tally to 24 on the season.
With the semi-finals well in hand, Nathaniel Clyne, Ragnar Klavan and Danny Ings were given run-outs, and Jürgen Klopp’s Reds cruised through to the final whistle.
There were a number of potential x-factors over the course of this tie — Guardiola’s sending off perhaps the most prominent — but it is hard to argue that the Reds weren’t well worth their win. Keeping this high-powered City offense to a single goal — and really, no more than perhaps two good chances — over the course of 180 minutes is an outstanding achievement, particularly from such a maligned defensive side.
The Reds did an exceptional job of funneling City’s attacks into areas where they could anticipate the outcome, and while it may have felt perilous to Reds fans, Loris Karius was only forced to make two saves in total over the two matches.
On offense, Mohamed Salah remains relentless, and the Egyptian’s venomous form paired with the team’s focus on high-quality chances over shot quantity saw Liverpool generate much higher expected goals per attempt than their opposition. Georginio Wijnaldum put in a brave and intelligent display in midfield, flanked by eager two-way runners in James Milner and Oxlade-Chamberlain, while van Dijk’s mere presence — if not his careless giveaway — seems to have bred confidence into both Lovren and Karius.
The draw for the semi-finals will be made on Friday, and Roma are unexpectedly in the hat after a three-goal comeback win over Barcelona. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich will look to secure their places in the semis tomorrow, and Liverpool are back at the penultimate stage of the Champions League for the first time in a decade.
This team is for real. Enjoy it.