Having just fallen victim to the most one-sided FA Cup final in modern history, it felt a little perverse for Javi Gracia to be sharing his thoughts on how to beat Manchester City. You wouldn’t ask for financial advice from someone who has recently been declared bankrupt, nor would you interrogate a bumbling police officer as to how he would prevent a massacre.
“In this moment everyone is really sad,” the Watford manager began, as if to drive the point home. “But we knew beforehand we had to play the perfect game.”
The Spaniard would go on to point out how his side had “created the best chance”, one Roberto Pereyra failed to capitalise upon with the scores level at Wembley. “Maybe scoring that – you need to take any opportunity – was key but after that, they were really good.”
City’s domestic Treble would be emphatically secured with six unanswered goals thereafter, with Watford seemingly powerless to stop the tornado. But if Gracia was ever asked the same question about Liverpool, against whom his Premier League aggregate score over three games is 0-13, his answer would be strikingly similar.
Those quotes would not have looked out of place at a Ralph Hasenhuttl presser on Saturday. The hosts were the better side in the first half, Che Adams was presented with the best chance at 0-0, yet both teams repeated their opening results. A second consecutive defeat for Southampton offered infinitely more hope than the first, while Liverpool’s victory was by half the deficit they enjoyed against Norwich, yet twice as impressive.
Ten of Jurgen Klopp’s starting XI played at least 45 minutes in Turkey as Wednesday evening ticked over into Thursday morning. Eight played at least an hour, six featured for 90 minutes and four the full 120. That, combined with the injury-enforced loss of James Milner for almost ten first-half minutes, saw Southampton dominate early proceedings.
For 20 minutes between Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s scuffed effort and Mo Salah’s wayward strike, Liverpool failed to have a single shot of any kind. Southampton, in that time, had three. Were it not for Adrian’s point-blank save from Maya Yoshida’s header, they would have led.
But Saints, as with Watford against City three months ago, failed to capitalise. Liverpool hardly improved when Milner returned from treatment for a head injury to restore parity – Adams had two gilt-edged opportunities soon after – but they did more than enough.
Sadio Mane’s opener in stoppage time was impeccable. His work to create the second for Roberto Firmino on 71 minutes was vital. Save for Oriol Romeu’s first-half performance, he was the only thing separating these two sides.
But what a thing. While Salah is the most obvious treasure, Barcelona and Real Madrid really ought to be digging deep for Mane. The sensational strike on the edge of the area summed up his silk; the press, tackle and pass for Firmino’s goal encapsulated his steel.
Southampton did take their chance, but by the point it was too late. James Ward-Prowse had already given Adrian one warning with regards to his slow release of possession in the first half, and Danny Ings would make sure he got the message. The former Liverpool striker really ought to have equalised soon after, but Gracia’s statement that “you need to take any opportunity” against this calibre of opposition rang true. The hosts were good, perhaps even great, yet that was still not enough against an under-par Liverpool.
Klopp will not be pleased with how permeable his defence has looked, how sloppy his side have been in these opening weeks. The caveat of a season that has already taken them through three competitions and two countries will only last so long. But this was a record-equalling 11th consecutive Premier League win: City are in for a fight.
That they do not look as impervious and unerring as their title rivals is understandable. City are the well-oiled machine to Liverpool’s more emotional human hybrid. But if you can’t beat them – even by a single point – join them. The Premier League now hosts two teams who opponents have to “play the perfect game” to beat.