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Jonathan Liew: 'Liverpool show appetite for scrap as Pep's men rediscover big-game bottle'



Roberto Firmino pounces to equalise from close-range for Liverpool. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

Roberto Firmino pounces to equalise from close-range for Liverpool. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

Action Images via Reuters

Roberto Firmino pounces to equalise from close-range for Liverpool. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

So, how was it for you? The big one. The biggest game of the season. The biggest game since the Premier League invented size in 1992. So big they had to play it on a Thursday. So big Jose Mourinho tried to sign it to play in midfield. Too big? That was always the danger, of course.

Sometimes these games drown in a frothing lather of their own clammy import, the stakes too high, every decision too meaningful. This, mercifully, was not one of those games. As the steam rose from the Etihad at full-time, as the fog of fervour cleared, as the title race fizzed back into life before our eyes: truly, were you not entertained?

Perhaps not if you were a Liverpool fan. Their first defeat of the league season will open up all sorts of wounds: some physical, some mental, some historical. But the visitors more than played their part in this captivating spectacle, storming back into the game after going a goal down, scrapping and scything away with the verve and character of… well, champions.

I still think they'll win the Premier League. And if they do, it will feel all the sweeter, all the more rewarding, after a setback like this.

Turbo-charged But really, the story here was a turbo-charged Manchester City, mean and magnificent, snatching back at their crown with pure skill and undisguised spite, hewing and hammering away with the verve and character of… well, champions. I still think they'll win the Premier League, too. And if they do, this was the night they won it.

Because it didn't have to be like this. These are the sorts of games Pep Guardiola teams have quite often muddled up in the past: most notably in last season's Champions League quarter-final, when Guardiola thought himself into a cul-de-sac. But here, on a night of high-velocity collisions and sub-zero temperatures that felt like being inside a fridge being thrown from a plane, they bared their teeth, discovered their inner mongrel, and came away with the spoils.

Again, it didn't start that way. Night fell on Manchester with a palpable trepidation, a pregnant silence that seemed to filter out of Piccadilly station, all along the packed Metrolink, over the chilly concourse and into the slowly-filling stands. One guy tried to start an enthusiastic "City, City, City" chant as he got off the tram. Nobody joined in. This was a massive, momentous occasion, but not in the good way: more like a job interview, or a cello exam, or a smear test. One of those events where the quantum of potential exhilaration seemed far outweighed by the capacity for total, vertical disaster.

As the game began, Guardiola paced his technical area with the neat, immaculate geometry so often associated with his sides: first the top-left corner, then the top-right, but always on the turn, always in the half-spaces, pim-pim-pim, guys, it's so simple, so simple.

Jurgen Klopp, meanwhile, stood in his customary magisterial stance, his hands clasped behind his back, ever-alert for something to point aggressively at: a coach first, a boss second, probably a geography teacher third.

City came to play. But that wasn't all they came to do. That was obvious from the opening skirmishes, as Fernandinho clattered into the back of Sadio Mane, clattered into the front of Andy Robertson, a one-man clattering machine pinballing through the Liverpool side as if he had their names on a piece of paper in his pocket.

Danilo marmalised Mane as he tried to play a through pass, just because. Even that nice young man Raheem Sterling cheekily left one on Robertson towards the end of the first half. As Sergio Aguero slammed City into the lead, he took a wild kick at the corner flag, all of City's bottled aggression pouring out.

Guardiola has always had this club in his bag, of course: Sergio Busquets, anyone? But City's roundhouse style, from minute one to minute 90, signalled his deep desire to match Liverpool for courage. He had an able lieutenant in Vincent Kompany, flying through the air to dispossess Mo Salah with a wicked tackle that probably should have earned him a red card.

To spice the pot, he then stood over Salah taunting him with all the dripping malice of the Crystal Palace fan who claimed, 24 years ago, merely to be shouting that it was an early bath for you, Mr Cantona.

Liverpool gave as good as they got, of course. They matched City s**thouse for s**thouse: Dejan Lovren scything down a haring Aguero, Robertson getting his own back on Sterling by hauling him over in the penalty area early in the second half. Later, Roberto Firmino charged over Sterling just as the England international was threatening to skim his way through.

And perhaps City's only real slack period of the game, midway through the second half, came when they stood off Liverpool a fraction, opted for conservatism over courage. At one point City countered down the left, and five blue shirts stayed behind to guard a single red.

And after Leroy Sane's winning goal, the nervousness set in again. Guardiola marched furiously up to fourth official Martin Atkinson, jabbing his finger at him like a man trying to set a new high score on the quiz machine.

Rogue Bernardo Silva - 5ft 8in and nobody's idea of a rogue - simply marmalised the startled substitute Fabinho, who looked like he wandered into the wrong sport. Full-time came with a roar and a cascade of flying hope.

It's easy to forget amid the gilded excellence of the Guardiola era, but City haven't been the hunters in a title race for some time. When it's happened in the past, they've rather enjoyed it. In 2014, under Manuel Pellegrini, they didn't lead between the opening day and May. In 2012… well, you know what happened in 2012, they've plastered it all over the outside of the stadium. The gap remains four points. Both teams still have to go to Manchester United and Everton, both still have to host Tottenham and Chelsea. Both still have Champions League and FA Cup ties to negotiate.

But on a freezing night in Manchester, it was City who located their big-game bottle and set up a spectacular spring. You simply mustn't take your eyes off this one. (© Independent News Service)

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