Wednesday 21 February 2018

Superior Liverpool prove title credentials against slack City

Liverpool 1 Manchester City 0

Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum celebrates scoring. Photo: Reuters
Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum celebrates scoring. Photo: Reuters

Daniel Taylor

These are the moments when Liverpool's supporters must hold genuine hope that their team is still capable of catching and overhauling Chelsea at the top of the table.

There is a six-point gap but the Premier League's second-placed team look absolutely convinced they have what it takes and, in the process, they managed to inflict significant damage on another of the teams who began the season with lofty ambitions.

Jurgen Klopp's men had to withstand some concerted pressure after switching to a more conservative system, playing on the break, during the second half. Yet it would be generous on Manchester City, however much they improved in that period, to argue they deserved anything more considering the story of the 90 minutes.

Liverpool played with great panache at times and, in other periods, they showed the kind of durability that will be mandatory to sustain a title challenge. What never shifted was their impeccable attitude whereas City, in stark contrast, took an age to get going.

Georginio Wijnaldum's eighth-minute goal inflicted the damage and the 10-match winning sequence with which Pep Guardiola introduced himself at his new club is starting to feel like a deception. This was another erratic performance and, however it is dressed up, City's owners did not bring in Guardiola to be 10 points adrift at the halfway point of the season.

Liverpool have scored 87 league goals in 2016, their highest figure since managing the same in 1985. More importantly, there was more evidence here that if anyone can chase down Chelsea it is the team that last won the league in 1990.

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp and Liverpool's Ragnar Klavan celebrate after the game. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp and Liverpool's Ragnar Klavan celebrate after the game. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters

Anfield certainly felt like a happy place. At one point Roberto Firmino could be seen miscontrolling the ball to concede a throw-in and there was still warm applause. The crowd could see a team that was giving everything and, more than anything, a set of players who looked absolutely determined to show they were the superior side.

For long spells, they did exactly that - quick to the ball, strong in the tackle and playing to the sensible theory that if City's defence are placed under pressure a mistake will generally follow. City have kept four clean sheets from their 19 league fixtures in the Guardiola era but it was also rare to see them looking as incoherent in attack as they did throughout the opening 45 minutes. Raheem Sterling, facing his former club, seemed disorientated by the crowd's jeers. David Silva could be seen misplacing passes and Sergio Aguero found it difficult at times on his return from a four-match suspension.

Liverpool passed the ball with greater authority and by half-time they were probably entitled to think they might have been further ahead. Firmino, a constant menace despite his occasional carelessness, would have left himself a clear run at goal if he had controlled one pass from James Milner and shortly before the interval there was a two-on-one break for Liverpool. Yaya Toure had been caught on the ball, with Firmino and Adam Lallana snapping at his feet. Firmino rushed his pass and the offside flag went up but that break seemed to epitomise the way the home side attacked the game.

It was a lovely goal that gave them the lead and perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to Wijnaldum is that there are Liverpool supporters of a certain generation who will remember John Toshack scoring headers of this nature. It was a prodigious leap but, more than anything, it was the sheer will on his part to meet Lallana's cross with the necessary blend of power and precision. His header flashed past Claudio Bravo and Liverpool had scored for the 23rd successive top-division fixture on their own ground.

Manchester City's John Stones and Liverpool's Adam Lallana. Photo: Dave Howarth/PA Wire
Manchester City's John Stones and Liverpool's Adam Lallana. Photo: Dave Howarth/PA Wire

Perhaps City had an argument that Ragnar Klavan, having already been booked for a challenge on Aguero, might have been shown a second yellow card shortly before the goal. Yet any grievance on their part does not alter the fact that they made a near-comedic mess of the free-kick. Toure's decision to aim it out to the left wing was strange in itself before Aleksandar Kolarov's clumsy touch gave the ball to Firmino. City were vulnerable as soon as Firmino played the initial forward pass, giving Lallana the chance to make ground on the left and Kolarov's ignominy was compounded by the fact that when he made it back to the penalty area he was the player Wijnaldum outjumped.

Liverpool's confidence could be summed up early in the second half when Jordan Henderson took it upon himself to nutmeg Kevin De Bruyne. Shortly afterwards, Kolarov could be seen directing a throw-in straight to an opposition player. City looked rushed and accident-prone - which is precisely what their opponents wanted them to be.

It was not until the game was approaching the hour mark before City started to pass the ball with their usual speed and clarity. Silva aimed a left-foot shot wide and for the first time, with City finally showing a degree of urgency, there was apprehension among the home supporters.

Sterling's early anxiety disappeared in the remainder of the game. Now he reminded his old club of his threat. Silva switched to a central role and De Bruyne also became increasingly influential. Yet City have not won at Anfield since 2003 and the evening finished with Klopp embracing his players, blowing kisses to the crowd and looking forward to 2017.

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