Sport Champions League

Thursday 18 October 2018

Sane's disallowed goal will dominate debate - Five things we learned from the Reds' Champions League quarter-final win

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola gestures to referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz at half time during the Champions League defeat to Liverpool REUTERS/Darren Staples
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola gestures to referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz at half time during the Champions League defeat to Liverpool REUTERS/Darren Staples

Mark Critchley

The hosts struck early through Gabriel Jesus but were unable to capitalise on their momentum before Mohamed Salah struck the critical blow in the 56th minute.

1. Referee’s decision will dominate post-match discussion

After 180 minutes of quite spectacular play in a tie that could spark English football’s newest great rivalry, Manchester City supporters will undoubtedly put their elimination down to one key and controversial refereeing decision.

Leroy Sané’s disallowed goal towards the close of the first half was one of several contentious decisions made by referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz and his assistants and, somewhat like Sadio Mané’s red card on this ground in September, it contained a degree of subjectivity.

Whether the deflection off James Milner can be classed as ‘deliberate’ play of the ball will dominate the discussion post-match, though it should not define what was, until Mohamed Salah’s sucker punch, a pulsating two-legged encounter.

2. Salah only needs one chance

Confidently declared ‘100 per cent fit’ by Jurgen Klopp before kick-off, Salah initially showed some signs of the groin injury that threatened to keep him out of this second leg.

His first touch of the evening was a heavy, wayward pass to Sadio Mané and the Egyptian, usually such a composed presence, looked as highly-strung as the rest of his team-mates.

Yet with Salah, it only takes a single chance. As in the first leg, his bloody single-mindedness to put himself in optimum scoring positions, ignoring a penalty call on Mané, allowed him to collect the ball, round Ederson and puncture an Etihad that was in danger of enjoying its first great European night in the late stages of this competition.

The PFA Player of the Year award is intended to reward domestic performances but, with Kevin De Bruyne on the same pitch and unable to inspire his side, you wonder how many of Salah’s peers finally signed and submitted their ballots tonight.

3. Ball boys key to first half’s blistering pace

Guardiola’s influence can be seen in so many aspects of modern football that you could be forgiven for thinking there was no trifling piece of the game’s minutiae left for him to tinker with, but City’s explosive owed as much to the umpteen young lads around the pitch as the 11 men on it. 

Instructing ball boys to return the ball in a timely fashion is not a particularly new idea, but few teams employ the tactic from the first whistle. Three minutes in, City already 1-0 up, the youngster nearest to the visiting dugout returned possession at such pace that Liverpool players in the vicinity were visibly surprised.

Their City counterparts, on the other hand expected it. Not once in the first half did they need to ask for it back, and along with a heavily-watered Etihad pitch, it contributed to a rapid pace that Liverpool simply could not handle.

4. Wijnaldum wakes up

If City were to complete a remarkable turnaround, it seemed it would depend upon the success or failure of Georginio Wijnaldum as Liverpool’s deepest midfielder.

Wijnaldum, a novice in the role, was competent enough against a poor Everton side during Saturday’s Merseyside derby but the ‘thunderstorm’ Klopp forecasted rained down on the Dutchman here and, in the opening 45 minutes, he was badly exposed.

What Liverpool lacked was a foothold and they still had not found it in the opening minutes of the second half when Klopp pointedly let rip at Wijnaldum from the touchline, apparently asking that he be more vocal and authoritative.

It worked, he woke up and as he improved, so did Liverpool. Red shirts suddenly seemed further up the pitch, the pressure on the midfielders in front of him eased. Despite all the pre-match scrutiny, Wijnaldum had weathered the storm.

5. Pep’s brave team selection initially pays off

Guardiola’s teamsheets often cause brows to furrow to eyebrows to raise, but the one delivered an hour before kick-off here was particularly perplexing. Just three recognised defenders, no natural left back and on a night where goals were the priority, no room for Sergio Aguero.

The formation was anyone’s guess pre-match but it turned out to be a 3-1-4-2, a set-up seen in the recent victory at Goodison Park but barely used otherwise, with Kyle Walker as a centre-half and Raheem Sterling partnering Gabriel Jesus up front.

This was a bold move by Guardiola, who drills his player down to specifics of each and every system he deploys. Just three days on from the Manchester derby, City’s preparation of this system cannot have been perfect but the execution of it was excellent. Their unpredictable movement in curious shape exploited gaps in Klopp’s Liverpool and made for a furious start.

Online Editors

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