The Blue Bubble is Burst….Big Style
The Manchester City juggernaut well and truly hit the buffers in another looney tunes 20 minutes when a defence that in recent weeks has been pretty mean delivered three complimentary goals to a team more than ready to accept them.
I was an advocate of leaving out Sterling, who was clearly affected by the booing backlash of the dippers last time out at Anfield. One can understand why this faithful friendly crowd see fit to boo him, but quite why they should offer likewise to the rest of City’s team remains a mystery, especially when last night we saw the Juventus fans applaud an astonishing goal by a member of the opposition. The Liverpool low-lifes have slid down a big greasy pole in my mind.
That said, having decided to follow the Pedmachine and leave out Sterling, to even think that Gundogan was an adequate replacement on the right was ridiculous. Since his return from injury, he has shown no real hunger for any fight and the right wing was an ideal place for him to hide tonight. Did he actually touch the ball. The recollections are less than vague.
The rest of the team was pretty predictable, although I couldn’t see the benefit of playing Laporte on the left, whether it was three, four or two as his reluctance, probably under instruction to avail himself further forward, left Sane having to graft alone against Liverpool’s weakest link, Alexander-Arnold, who was probably their man of the match.
After an opening period where City looked to be starting with an element of composure, of all people, Sane played a poor pass right into the path of a Liverpool midfielder. The ball was quickly processed to Salah who was offside and got away with it. His dart into the box caused panic and when Walker got the chance to stick it into the Kop he tried a kind of back-heel that went to Firmino, who didn’t quite get a shot away and the loose ball went back to Salah, who doesn’t miss from there.
Cue the kind of comic cuts, keystone cops defending that prevailed in the recent league match. Otamendi, for a while lost composure, Walker, without cover from the absent Sterling Kept going walkabout and the Scousers were able to pick City off with two well taken goals, but both of which came from sacrificial offerings from City.
When Oxlade-Chamberlain found himself open just outside the box with the Blues defence in absentia, what more could he do than drill it past Ederson? Easy.
Shortly thereafter some work poor work by the City defence allowed Mane to get open to complete the scoring. We didn’t feel that it would be at the time, though.
Once again, after gifting Liverpool the lead City got caught in the occasion and did not concentrate on playing football. Whenever they were in possession they looked lethargic, as if the belief was draining out of them faster than Liverpool were scoring goals. For their part the Mickey-Mousers hunted in twos, covering each other with verve and vigour and making sure that the little pockets that De Bruyne and Silva, both nominally out of the game in the first half, normally exploit. In short, City were kept well shy of the Liverpool goal and whatever gifts Karius might offer up and to be honest didn’t look like scoring all night.
Liverpool could have scored five in the first half, so City would have been happy to get to the dressing room only three goals behind.
The second started a bit more a la City. The possession stats rose in their favour, but it was ineffective possession. They persevered to use Sane, who was outfoxed by Alexander-Arnold, who himself was recently outfoxed by Rashford and Zaha. Nobody made the inside left run that might’ve opened the door, and all the crosses into the box were searching for Dzeko who was playing at the Camp Nou and similarly suffering. At least he scored though.
In the second half Liverpool visibly tired and invited City to the party. The Blues simply couldn’t find the drinks cabinet. Silva and De Bruyne found more room, but Liverpool adopted a Stretford-esque approach of getting men behind the ball and allowing City no space in the danger areas. De Jesus grafted alone all night but didn’t even get the scraps. When Sterling finally arrived for the useless Gundogan, things did start to happen but he looked afraid of attacking the box, preferring instead to keep going round and round, in effect not really offering a threat.
An away goal would have changed the complexion of this match but Liverpool delivered things to perfection, give or take a yellow card for Henderson, as they plundered three goals past City and then held their nerve, keeping the back so tidy, Karius didn’t have a save to make and was pretty much a stranger to the football all night.
Like me, the Blues that attended Anfield felt extremely let down. There was a clear change of tactic, practised at Goodison on Saturday, but not exactly honed tonight. I think Zinchenko or Delph would have give City more options and assisted Sane more. With Laporte getting dragged into wide positions on the left and Otamendi likewise on the right, Kompany was often caught alone and vulnerable and Liverpool took full advantage in that dramatic twenty minutes which will almost certainly have decided the overall outcome of this tie.
Generally, as has often been said in these pages, it is difficult to select a City man-of-the-match because it could be one of seven, tonight it couldn’t have been any of eleven. I for one can’t see City winning by four clear goals even at Planet Etihad. Unless of course Guardiola has seen something I haven’t.
On no occasion have we been able to say that City played poorly, but this was a match where nothing went their way, their workplace was closed off and the home team used their ascendency to maximum advantage. City gave the ball away too much in the first half because they couldn’t find those spaces and Liverpool were happy to capitalise wherever they could. City were found to be playing a mirror image of themselves, but this mirror didn’t waste its opportunities. City simply didn’t get any.
I got the impression that Bernardo would have offered more that Gundogan and that Pep should have moved Sane to the left for a while, especially when Sterling arrived and played with two inverted wide men. This would have allowed Walker to get into the wide spaces and may have been more productive.
It’s all ifs and maybes, but Klopp got it right again against his adversary and Pep will be needing to find a huge bunch of keys if City are going to rescue something from this tie.
With a lot of work to do next Tuesday, does Guardiola save his best tram for that, or does he go and get the title won and see what happens next Tuesday? I haven’t got the answer to that one, but it would be a nightmare if this defeat provoked another against the Stretfords and upset the season finale.