Saturday 15 June 2019

Second-half nightmares return to haunt Pep while Klopp and Liverpool can dream of glory

Talking point

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Tim Goode/PA Wire
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Tim Goode/PA Wire

Jim White

Rather than venting his spleen at the referee when the half-time whistle blows, Pep Guardiola might be advised to turn his attention to what exactly is in the interval tea served up to his Manchester City team at the Etihad.

For the second match in succession, everything changed here after the break. After squandering total supremacy in the Manchester derby, they somehow managed to do it again in a Champions League tie against Liverpool.

Never mind a game of two halves, for Guardiola this is rapidly turning into a season of two halves as once again the switch from the sublime to the ridiculous arrived without apparent warning.

Mohammed Salah's goal on 56 minutes changed everything here, turning City's expedition up Mont Blanc into an Everest of a climb, with the oxygen jettisoned at base camp.

Needing a further four goals in an increasingly despondent, exhausted, desperate last half hour, they sank into introspection.

With Liverpool harrying and chasing every attempted incursion, the inevitable rapidly came into view when Roberto Firminho added a second. All that was left for the City fans was to join their manager in directing bitter blame at the referee.

And to think it had all started so well. Six days on, there was no attempt to replicate at the Etihad what had happened when these two teams had met at Anfield. The Liverpool team bus passed through the security gates barely noticed, its windows intact, its tyres unmolested.

Rather than a welcoming committee, the strongest reaction it drew came from a middle-aged Manchester City fan who waved his fist as it passed, then quickly withdrew his arm in case anyone noticed. This was less a welcome to hell and more a gentleman's 'excuse me'.

Clearly this is a place where they leave the intimidation to be done on the pitch, where they prefer skill to flares, goals to bottles, relentless attack to spittle.

And the manner in which City began here could not have been better scripted to stir encouragement from the stands.

Never mind that the fireworks that had been installed on the roof of the stadium in order to mark winning the Premier League title last Saturday were still in place, albeit with the blue touchpaper somewhat dampened by the relentless Manchester squall, City started as if they had no need of them. The pyrotechnics were apparently attached to the boots of the men in blue.

Guardiola's team were so full of attacking threat it must have been hard for Jurgen Klopp to know where to start in his team talk. They were a goal up after a couple of minutes, tearing through the Liverpool backline as if it were constructed of papier mache. The corporate fans in the Tunnel Club barely found their seats before they were standing to cheer.

This was the kind of opening Klopp must have feared. If he had a plan to counter it, for 45 minutes it was hard to discern what it was, as City's absolute boa-constrictor grip on the game barely allowed them to breath, never mind consider anything positive.

City began as they had to at three goals down: irrepressible in attack. Leroy Sane jet-heeled on the left, Bernando Silva offering constant threat on the other wing.

Under relentless pressure, Liverpool couldn't keep the ball. James Milner and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain beetled around midfield, but their priority was firefighting, not building.

And, oddly, it seemed to be to City's advantage that they only scored the one goal in the first half.

Unlike Saturday's derby, when they were so far superior to their opposition they should have scored five, the mathematics of the tie insisted there could be no complacency.


But still something seemed to go wrong in the dressing room. And the moment that reversal seemed imminent was when Firminho brought down the breaking Kevin De Bruyne.

Instead of the second yellow card that seemed certain to be heading his way, the referee didn't even give a foul. Wherever he was sitting, Guardiola must sunk into a seething fury.

And from there, the inevitable happened. It doesn't really matter what tactical plan you adopt when you have Salah in your team. Switched by Klopp at half time to play up front, with Firminho patrolling the left of midfield, the Egyptian maintained his extraordinary, player-of-the-season run.

His goal seemed to puncture everything. For the second time in four days, the only noise in the stadium subsequently came from those in red, gleefully mocking City's lack of European pedigree.

And when Firminho added the second on 77 minutes it only added further lustre to Liverpool's history books: this was to be the club's first ever away European win against English opposition.

Not that the home fans were anxious to acknowledge the statistic. They were already streaming for the exits. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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