* Liverpool are right in this thing. Until now, or at least until half-time last Wednesday, the Champions League was a wonderful adventure, but also a pleasant distraction from the main mission of qualifying for the same tournament next season. Modern football is odd sometimes.
Even the most optimistic Liverpool supporter did not envisage Jurgen Klopp’s team actually lifting the trophy for a sixth time. This was too soon in his project. The squad was too thin. The defence was too weak. These were not pre-prepared excuses, but valid reasons for falling just short.
Now they have no reason not to believe. That lump in the throat and churning of the stomach that we call ‘hope’ has never felt so strong. It is ten years since Liverpool made the semi-finals of this competition, but Barcelona and Manchester City are both out, and Juventus are all but. Rather than ‘How can we?’, the question has changed to ‘Why shouldn’t we?’.
Until October, when Liverpool embarked on their magnificent run of Premier League and Champions League form (it’s now 21 wins and eight draws from their last 31 matches in those two competitions), the doubters were still clearing their throats and expressing their views. There were even those who still felt Klopp had done no more with Liverpool than Brendan Rodgers had. There were as many Klopp doubters as Klopp-lievers.
But look to this Champions League season for emphatic evidence of improvement. In 2014/15, having taken the title race to the wire the previous season, Liverpool slumped out of a Champions League group in which they were twice beaten by Real Madrid and took one point from two matches against Basel. Not only did Rodgers put out a reserve team in the Bernabeu, he drew 2-2 with Bulgarian side Ludogorets. Rodgers claimed to get Liverpool; over those six games he disproved that claim.
Where Rodgers fell, Klopp has flown. If 2013/14 felt magical, 2017/18 feels sustainable. This Liverpool success is built on solid foundations, not dreams. Liverpool are the only unbeaten team left in the Champions League, as well as its top scorers. Again, why shouldn’t they?
More importantly, when the going got tough over these two energy-sapping legs, Liverpool displayed the mettle that so many have accused them of lacking. This is a team built in its manager’s image: effervescent and cheerful but with far more depth than the smiling exterior makes you believe.
Every other English club has fallen along the way: Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham and Manchester United. Liverpool do not pretend to represent the Premier League; they represent their city and themselves. But you can be sure of one thing: no team in Europe wants to face them. Not with this front three. Not with this manager.
* For Manchester City, a bridge too far. They were exceptional in the first half, and unfortunate not to be leading by more than one at the break. The end result may have been defeat, but from the moment Mohamed Salah delicately chipped Ederson the tie was over and nothing else mattered. It was not lost in Manchester, but during that crazy first half at Anfield when defenders lost heads and Liverpool lost all sense of fear.
Yet there is something in Klopp having a hold on Guardiola, for we might loosely call this a battle between ‘measurables’ and ‘immeasurables’. Guardiola is the obsessive and the stickler for detail, the coach who insists on the grass at Manchester City’s training ground being cut to a specific length – to the millimetre – and micro-manages each player to make them realise and exceed their potential.
Klopp is no slouch when it comes to the details, but he is a coach who puts faith in feelings as much as figures. Make players better, sell them high and maintain improvement to bridge the gap to the financial elite. Klopp has made that his forte, and he does it largely through the warmth of his relationships.
In a recent interview with Goal’s Melissa Reddy, Klopp’s anger at a member of staff for not knowing that Andrew Robertson was due to become a father is mentioned. If you do not connect with a player, how can you expect him to commit to your vision? The minutiae matters because it makes the bigger picture work.
If this is master motivator vs master tactician, then, perhaps what has happened over the last week and last nine months is no surprise. Want a manager to oversee an extended period of ruthless title-winning form without complacency creeping in? Pep’s your man. Want someone to get their players up for a monumental cup tie? It’ll be Klopp you want.
* Guardiola caused a surprise with his team selection and shape in the first leg, and got it badly wrong, but if you thought that would encourage Manchester City’s manager to be less inventive, you were badly mistaken.
Instead, Guardiola has brought the ‘teamsheet game’ to English football, where you see the list of players selected and work out how they will be sprinkled onto the pitch. Kyle Walker at right-back and Aymeric Laporte at left-back with one central defender? Or Walker as a central defender? And, if so, Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva as attacking wing-backs? Or three central defenders and no full-backs, instead just a load of midfielders who could fill in as required?
This was not false ignorance for effect, either. I genuinely spent three minutes with a piece of paper working out how City could start the game, and usually ended with either a space at left-back or Bernardo Silva left over.
Eventually, news filtered through that City would play in a 3-1-4-2 formation that they used in preseason, with Walker as a central defender and with Raheem Sterling playing as a striker with Gabriel Jesus. Still, the Sky Sports app had other ideas. With Pep, you never know.
Whatever it is, it’s not THIS pic.twitter.com/uUQcnjD2k9
— Liam (@RolandRatReagan) April 10, 2018
* Yet wherever you had the players standing, one thing was obvious: Guardiola was not hanging about. He realised that he needed to surprise Klopp with his team’s shape, even if only temporarily, to try and create overlaps early on in the match that could lead to chances being created.
Yet that would also allow Liverpool to get in behind City if they quickly worked out that shape and reacted to it. How could it not, when at most there were three regulation defenders picked from the start against the highest-scoring front three in the Premier League (and the second highest-scoring in Europe)? Anyone who tells me they fancy Nicolas Otamendi one-on-one against the movement of Roberto Firmino is either lying or a member of the Argentinian’s close family.
* So Guardiola knew that an early goal would be the most precious currency; he had to wait less than two minutes to cash in. Manchester City failed to have a shot on target in the first leg, but took just 116 seconds in the second to break Loris Karius’ resistance.
Firstly, the goal came from a moment of naivety from Virgil van Dijk, bought specifically to eliminate these type of mistakes. Perhaps the Dutchman was fouled by Sterling (although it was hardly obvious if so), but to stop playing to appeal for the foul is a basic error. It presumes that the referee will fall on your side, which is no guarantee.
From that point, Van Dijk is playing catch-up, his clearance is sliced, and suddenly City are on the counter attack. Five seconds later, it’s 1-0.
* A word too for Sterling, who was the deserved scapegoat for City’s defeat to Manchester United having missed three presentable chances.
If the doubts over the winger surround his penalty-box composure, the worst possible time to get a chance is before you have had chance to settle into the match. And yet Sterling was sent through, steadied himself and played the ball perfectly into the pass of Jesus. The same applies to the Brazilian’s finish; composure personified.
* From that point, Manchester City went into hyperdrive. It was like watching football played at double-speed, crisp passes played into the feet of wingers who glided past their man. Ball boys were instructed to get the ball immediately back into play, which gave the weird impression that the ball never really went out at all, like a one-sided game of five-a-side.
This is City at their very best, attacking as if there is five minutes to go, but crucially playing with pace rather than panic. Every flick came off, every interception made. After a week of criticism of Guardiola’s management – understandable given the setbacks – this was a display of majestic possession football at speed which demonstrates his improvement of these players.
* At the centre of it all, literally and metaphorically, was De Bruyne. If the first leg supposedly indicated why Salah merits being named the Player of the Year, the first half of the second leg was an exhibition of the Belgian’s brilliance.
At times like these, De Bruyne is virtually unplayable. He drops deep to collect the ball, and opposition midfielders automatically step off. They have no choice but to do so, such is his ability to drive forward at pace and glide past an opponent. Push up on him, and he will only make you look silly with a drop of the shoulder and the nudge of his toe on the ball.
The problem with De Bruyne is that your only hope of defending him simultaneously helps him. To give yourself time when facing him is to grant him the same commodity. That’s when he plays the through passes that split a defence, or the long, fading cross-field balls that set Sane clear against a full-back.
* Despite City’s first-half brilliance, we do have to consider whether Liverpool initially played the situation badly. The one advantage City had with being so far behind is that their game plan was set in stone: Attack, attack, attack.
For Liverpool, it was different. Klopp knew that the best form of defence was attack, both because that is his own team’s strength and also City’s obvious weakness. But that was impossible in practice. No team holding a three-goal lead goes away from home and piles forward – it just isn’t done.
Liverpool’s biggest first-half mistake was that their three midfielders sat too close to the defence. That meant that while the three forwards still pressed and harried City’s three defenders, their efforts were entirely wasted because there was always a simple pass on to either De Bruyne or Fernandinho, and neither of those players were under significant pressure. It only invited City onto them.
It also left that same front three too isolated when Liverpool actually got the ball. It’s easy to criticise the three midfielders for losing possession, but when the nearest teammate in front of you is 30 yards away, your best hope is to send it long and hope for the best. Again, it invites pressure.
* There is no doubt that Liverpool were rattled in the first half, and their tempestuous tackling was good evidence of it. Their first yellow card came when Sadio Mane slid into Otamendi, but we can at least give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he slipped into the defender. Having been kicked in the face by Mane earlier this season, Ederson was not prepared to exact his revenge.
Dejan Lovren then scythed down Sterling on the wide edge of the penalty area, and was incredibly fortunate not to be booked, while Trent Alexander-Arnold clotheslined Sane and got the same punishment.
The most inevitable yellow card of the half was awarded to Firmino, not because he committed a host of fouls but because it came for a tug of De Bruyne’s shirt and a clip of his heels. Sometimes, the only way to stop him is by literal foul means.
* I don’t like talking about every refereeing decision that could have gone either way, thus inadvertently encouraging supporters to cry foul about inherent bias against their team, but we can’t not dissect the decision to disallow City’s second goal three minutes before half-time. Partly because it really did change the course of the tie, and partly because it was a catastrophic error.
The assistant referee was right to flag; that’s important to say first. If he believes that an offside offence might have occurred, he must do so. What then follows is a conversation between the referee and his assistant about such things as ‘WHO ACTUALLY HIT THE BALL’. That conversation must have gone badly.
The reply from some people was that James Milner’s touch was not deliberate, and so offside was the correct call. That’s wrong on two counts:
1) It clearly was deliberate, because he lifted his knee towards the ball.
2) That only matters if the touch before that had been from a Manchester City player, but it wasn’t. This was a punch by a Liverpool goalkeeper onto a Liverpool player, that rebounded towards his own goal. How in any way can that be offside?
What’s worse is how long it took everyone on BT Sport to reach that conclusion. Steve McManaman spent around 30 seconds saying variations of “yes, it has hit Milner” without putting two and two together and getting ‘onside’.
Luckily, BT have an expert former referee to set things straight, and it only took Chris Foy until five minutes into the second half to tell the viewers exactly what they had spent so long screaming at the screen.
* To add insult to, erm…insult, Guardiola was sent off at half-time for his protestations towards Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz, forced to sit up in the stands for the second half. Gone was the touchline micro-managing.
‘Pep Guardiola has been dealt a bitter pre-match blow after a referee whom he has accused of costing Manchester City in the past was put in charge of Tuesday’s make-or-break Champions League tie against Liverpool,’ was the first paragraph of the Daily Telegraph’s story on Monday afternoon.
‘Antonio Mateu Lahoz has been appointed to officiate the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final at the Etihad Stadium only days after the Spanish referee – who has awarded three penalties against City in two matches – was criticised by Guardiola.’
He’s hardly likely to get a Christmas card this year either.
* Despite the fear of their first-half performance, getting to half-time only one goal behind was crucial to Klopp’s plan. He knew that the longer the game went with City needing two or more goals, the more his side could hope to spring a surprise.
After all, this is Klopp’s side in their element. They have regularly been undone by teams who have sat deep and soaked up pressure, hitting Liverpool on the counter, with their record against weaker teams at Anfield coming in for particular scrutiny earlier in Klopp’s reign.
But when a team is forced to come onto Liverpool, leaving Salah and Firmino against two defenders every time the ball is sprung forward, they should expect danger. The more City needed to push forward, the more likely it was that Liverpool would score.
* And so it proved, albeit with the aid of slack City defending and some wondrous attacking play from Salah. It was ever thus.
Firstly, Laporte completely failed to stop Mane, who didn’t so much beat the central defender for pace or trickery as ran through him with the ball. Mane then squirmed past the onrushing Ederson, laying the ball to Salah as he tumbled over.
The best forwards and finishers in the world have a knack not only of making the difficult look simple, but of taking themselves out of the mania around them and staying ice cold. Before – and even at the very start of – this season, we had never seen such coolness from Salah, but he’s a bloody quick learner.
The only way the Egyptian could score from that angle was to chip the ball over the diving Otamendi and into the far corner. To demonstrate the composure to pull that off in training would be impressive, but to take the touch and perform the dink in the heat of this situation was extraordinary. No wonder they wanted him back from injury so badly.
* That, of course, was tie over, and the rest of the game played out as such. You could hear the clicks around the country as viewers turned over to the Roma vs Barcelona game (and clever buggers for doing so).
But we were treated to another piece of Otamendi theatre, a central defender who Guardiola insists is good enough but who so regularly makes a mockery of that assessment that he must be moved away from regular first-team duties next season. With Benjamin Mendy fully fit, surely a central defence of John Stones and Laporte with Mendy and Walker as full-backs fits the requirements of Guardiola’s system better?
* Finally, a point that might be unpopular but really shouldn’t be. There seems to be a widespread assessment that City’s last three results diminish their achievements and performances over the last seven months. To me, that’s nonsense.
You might not agree that this team has been called the best in Premier League history, and this is a game of opinions. But it’s hardly a stupid statement for a team that will probably break the record total of points, wins and goals in the Premier League era. Liverpool’s performances over the last week should indicate that competition in the Premier League is pretty strong. Which makes a 13-point lead at the top all the more impressive.
I understand that social media existence, tribalism, general impatience and consumer culture all combine to create a situation whereby you’re only as good as your last result, but we can still appreciate the excellent of this club and manager despite not reaching the Champions League semi-finals. Every defeat doesn’t prove that something or someone is overrated.
And yes, I do know I’m fighting a losing battle. So I’ll say nanite.