Tuesday 20 August 2019

Chris Bascombe: 'Wembley showcases quality that will alarm the rest as another two-horse title race beckons'


It is no secret Klopp wants Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita to offer the goal threat the trio of starters at Wembley lack. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
It is no secret Klopp wants Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita to offer the goal threat the trio of starters at Wembley lack. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Chris Bascombe

City must adjust to life after Kompany. Jurgen Klopp's back four is fairly settled. In his first significant call of the season, he preferred Joe Gomez to Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren, a hint of the long-term vision.

The Gomez/Van Dijk partnership was flourishing before the England man's injury midway through last season, despite Matip impressing en route to European glory. Gomez made an early error, the first of many in red to be robbed by Raheem Sterling, but he overcame the nervous opening to settle alongside his composed partner, happy to see Sterling switch roles.

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Yet for all Liverpool's solidity last season, they have conceded numerous sloppy goals during this summer's warm-up games. Sterling's opener is just the latest. It appears more mental than technical, lapses in concentration, but it is no less surprising.

It is Manchester City who are still searching for the right formula at the back in the post-Vincent Kompany era. The Belgian has, of course, moved on to be player-manager for Anderlecht.

Pep Guardiola seemed generous to his opponents in selecting Nicolas Otamendi and Claudio Bravo - yet the stand-in goalkeeper was outstanding and should have been the sponsors' man of the match. Mo Salah's eyes seemed to widen every time he had a chance to attack left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko. At his sharpest, Salah could have had a hat-trick in both halves. Liverpool enjoyed plenty of pressure, especially in the second half.

City's greatest act of defence remains their capacity to retain the ball. To Liverpool's credit, after half-time they pinned them back.

City are the masters of central intelligence

City's midfield is the envy of the world, enhanced by Kevin De Bruyne's welcome return to complete fitness. It is the difference between the teams when, at their best, City somehow appear more controlled in possession, more astute at how to work through the gears. That can often seem ponderous until the pace quickens and even a defence as impressive as Liverpool's can momentarily look panic-stricken.

The champions grew tired alarmingly as the game progressed, and were fortunate to hold on to win the penalty shoot-out, but there was no mistaking their class in the first half. There was a suspicion last season that City were diminished in the absence of Fernandinho. Rodri's impressive introduction should terminate that theory, even if the Spaniard struggled in the second half. The archetypal midfield enforcer, who was making his competitive debut for City, sat deep to swat away incoming surges.

It is no secret Klopp wants Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita to offer the goal threat the trio of starters at Wembley lack. They could have won it in the sprightly finale. Once more, the differences are minuscule.

Fasten your seat belts for another goal-fest

It is a fairly safe prediction Manchester City and Liverpool will both threaten a century of goals in the season ahead. Sure, Salah needs some target practice before the Premier League opener against Norwich but some of the build-up play from both sides was breathtaking considering how little preparation they have had.

If Roberto Firmino enjoyed a summer holiday, presumably there was a training pitch next to his sunbed. Considering the Brazilian has been pre-season training less than a week, his effervescence bodes well.

City can find weaknesses that opponents did not realise they had, and will rarely be exposed by others. There was a clear strategy to attack Alexander-Arnold and his match-up with Leroy Sane looked like becoming the main attraction until the German limped off. Alexander-Arnold instead had the ordeal of facing the seemingly unstoppable Sterling. The City forward's strength shone as much as his skill, and his early strike hints at another season where his goal ratio will improve.

Sterling looked capable of taking on the entire Liverpool defence at times, although he will wonder why he delayed instead of shooting when sent clear in the second half. Worryingly for the rest, he can still get better.

Overall, both attacks showed how thrilling they can be once they sharpen up.

We saw the 2019-'20 title winners at Wembley

There is nothing for Guardiola and Klopp to fret about ahead of the new campaign. This game can only alarm those trying to chase them down. It was a high-quality contest and City's celebrations after dispatching five penalty kicks underlined how hard they worked.

Liverpool can certainly curse their missed opportunities, but they will be buoyed rather than disheartened as they pushed City in a way few, if any, have achieved over the past two years.

City's belief will swell and Guardiola will use this experience to ram home the message that if they open the door for Klopp's side, they are ready to barge their way through. Chances are it's a two-horse race again, folks. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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