A breathtaking first half laid the foundation, before a stubborn defensive performance sealed it after the break, as Liverpool thoroughly outplay Manchester City in the first leg of the Champions League quarter finals.
The pre-match preparations were marred by an incident in which City’s bus was damaged by projectiles thrown from the raucous Liverpool crowd gathered outside the stadium, with the club issuing a full and immediate apology to
The single point of selection uncertainty ahead of the game ended with James Milner being preferred over Georginio Wijnaldum, as Klopp elected to go with British iron over Dutch steel. Partnering the former City man in midfield were captain Jordan Henderson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the only real options left with Adam Lallana and Emre Can unavailable through injury. At the back, much was made of the duel between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Leroy Sané ahead of the game, with the teenage fullback coming in for criticism following a pair of subpar performances in recent weeks.
From the outset, it was clear both managers had paid special attention to their opposition’s main attacking threats. Aymeric Laporte took up an unfamiliar left fullback position as Pep Guardiola’s men shifted to a back three when attacking, in an effort to subdue Mohamed Salah. At the other end, Jürgen Klopp’s side were intent on shutting down the playmaking of Kevin de Bruyne, blocking lanes and forcing the Citizens to play the ball wide, or rely on Vincent Kompany to pick out team mates in advanced positions.
The visitors dominated the ball in the early going, switching play often to the left flank in an effort to bully Alexander-Arnold, but, with ample support from a relentless Oxlade-Chamberlain, the 19-year old was in complete control of the intimidating Sané.
Anfield was boiling with excitement, and on twelve minutes, the stadium erupted. Sadio Mané picked up the ball outside his area following a City corner, waited for the run of Milner and played the ball down the flank, where the Englishman immediately drove a long ball into the path of a streaking Salah. The Egyptian carried the ball towards the City box and slipped a ball through for Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian turned Nicolas Otamendi, but his hurried finish was blocked by Emerson. Not one to rest on his laurels, Firmino immediately pounced on a dawdling Kyle Walker, and the ball fell to who else but Salah, who hammered home from eight yards.
City missed a great chance to even the score minutes later, as Sané broke through the middle, but with options to the elft and right, the German hooked an effort wide of the post from 20 yards out.
That miss would come back to bite the visitors on 21 minutes, as Liverpool, having bypassed City’s high press and forced the visitors into the uncomfortable position of having to defend in their own half, struck again. A blind clearance from the box fell to Milner, who slid the ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain 25 yards out. The former Arsenal man controlled the ball, carried it a step forward, and unleashed an absolute cracker that zoomed past Emerson and into the back of the net. Liverpool were two up and rampant.
City were lost at sea, as players couldn’t play their way through the Liverpool block, nor prevent the hosts from playing through them and forcing them back. On the half hour, the Reds collected a well-deserved third goal, this time with Salah the creator. Collecting the ball on the right, the Egyptian saw a speculative shot blocked by Otamendi, but reacted quickly to the rebound, and elected to cross on the second go. Reds were lining up at the back post, and Sadio Mané rose highest, heading home his 16th of the campaign.
Five minutes from the whistle, Oxlade-Chamberlain slipped into the space left behind by a frustrated de Bruyne and was fed by Alexander-Arnold, but breaking into the box with options on either side, the 24-year old was hindered at the last second by a sensational piece of tackling from Laporte. Mané would skin Walker and see his cross cut out, before Virgil van Dijk headed over the bar from a corner, and Liverpool went into the break, good value for their lead.
The second half was never going to be a repeat of the first, and Guardiola had got his players mentally reset, looking for a way back into the tie. David Silva dropped deeper into midfield, while Kevin de Bruyne moved close to the Liverpool box, and the visitors upped the intensity of their pressing, forcing the Reds into numerous errors.
Sané went close with a volley following a chipped pass from Fernandinho, before Salah was forced to come off with what looked like a groin injury, replaced by Wijnaldum. Bereaved of their outlet ball and struggling under the City press, the Reds were forced into a number of aimless clearances, and the Sky Blue waves of offense kept crashing up against their defense.
A de Bruyne cross found Silva in the area, but van Dijk blocked it for a corner. Ilkay Gundogan saw an effort deflected wide seconds later. Yet for all their possession and the palpable tension in the stadium, the attacking powerhouse that demolished all that had come before it to this point in the season never really came close.
Firmino was replaced by Dominic Solanke 20 minutes from time, and within two minutes nearly had an assist, chasing a chipped ball into the box and cutting it back to the 12-yard spot, but an exhausted Mané could only get his toes to the ball, scuffing his effort straight at Emerson.
Substitute Raheem Sterling got in behind the Liverpool defense, but his cross was behind Gabriel Jesus and the shot was no threat. Another de Bruyne cross ping-ponged in the home box for a second, but ultimately fell harmlessly into Loris Karius’ arms, as the mighty Manchester offense failed to register a shot on target for the first time in the campaign.
That was just about as good a first leg as anybody would’ve dared hope for, and the credit must be shared by the entirety of the coaching staff and players. Klopp had clearly set up his team to deny City their favoured passing patterns, as well as worked on defending individual players. Guardiola’s attempt to exploit Alexander-Arnold was expertly shut down, not only by the strategic support from the 19-year old’s team mates, but by an outstanding performance by the young man himself.
In midfield, Henderson, Milner and Oxlade-Chamberlain did an excellent job forcing their opponents wide, and found space to receive the ball in when in possession, allowing their side to retain the ball, move up the pitch and deny the visitors any easy turnovers. This can not be underestimated, as City’s defensive success this season relies heavily on being able to dominate possession and deny the opposition structured attacks through aggressive pressing, tilting the pitch towards the goal they’re attacking. When pushed to defend in their own half, City were clearly uncomfortable, and credit for the game looking that way largely goes to the work done in midfield.
Defensively, the Reds were immaculate, denying the City goal machine a single shot on target, and refusing to give up any chances of note. Dejan Lovren and Virgil van Dijk were both barely mentioned by the commentators, winning the duels they should and disincentivising Pep’s playmakers from forcing the ball in their direction through intelligent positioning and diligent marking.
The only real negatives to take from tonight are Mohamed Salah’s possible groin injury, that there even is a return leg, and that Jordan Henderson will be unavailable for it, having picked up a yellow card in the dying minutes of the match. Now it is onto a Merseyside derby on Saturday lunchtime, before the return leg at the Etihad on Tuesday. Hold on to every single butt you own, people.