Fine margins and Fernandinho keep Man City hot on Liverpool’s heels
MANCHESTER, United Kingdom – On the finest of margins, a title race can turn. Manchester City resurrected their defence of the Premier League by inflicting Liverpool’s first defeat of the season in an enthralling encounter decided by centimetres.
At one end Sadio Mane hit the post and John Stones cleared off the line with 1.12 centimetres to spare before the ball crossed the line to deny Liverpool a first-half lead.
Leroy Sane’s winner in City’s 2-1 victory also hit the woodwork of the same goal over an hour later, but this time the ball spun into the net.
“In the end, you can say post (and) in or post (and) out can make a massive difference — today we witnessed that,” said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
City now trail the league leaders by just four points after a run of three defeats in four games in December threatened to completely derail their bid to become the first side in a decade to retain the Premier League.
“It was a final for us, because losing today it was almost over,” said City boss Pep Guardiola.
A game that had everything as Roberto Firmino’s well-worked equaliser for the visitors cancelled out Sergio Aguero’s stunning strike to open the scoring, showed why this fixture has superseded other rivalries as the
Premier League’s showcase since the arrival of Guardiola and Klopp. Despite City’s romp to the title with a record 100 points last season, it was Liverpool who held the upper hand in head-to-head meetings, winning three out of four, including a Champions League quarter-final 5-1 on aggregate.
A thirst for revenge and desire not to surrender their title was obvious from the City players, on the bench and in the stands.
As the rivalry between these two sides has brewed over the past year, City are normally portrayed as the more cold and clinical — a winning machine built on money from Abu Dhabi.
But by full-time the Etihad had reached a fever pitch more reminiscent of Anfield as Guardiola admitted he had never experiencedan atmosphere like it for a City home game.
– Guardiola feels the heat –
Guardiola was also clearly feeling the pressure as he somehow avoided being sent to the stands for a tirade at the fourth official after a fine save from Ederson prevented Mohamed Salah scoring a late equaliser, with City claiming a foul in the build-up.
No manager has beaten the Catalan more than Klopp. Between their clashes with German giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and now eight in England, the Liverpool boss still edges the head-to-head seven victories to six.
Guardiola has been unflinching in his determination that his principles will not change despite City’s recent slump.
But this was a win achieved as much by sweat as skill. For the first time under Guardiola, City had less possession than their opponents in a Premier League game.
Bernardo Silva covered 13.7 kilometres — the biggest distance by a Premier League player in any game this season.
Yet City’s standout midfielder was not the Portuguese or his namesake David Silva, but Fernandinho, who has returned from injury just in time to keep City afloat in the title race after missing the recent defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester.
“Fernandinho is easily the best central midfield player in our country right now,” said Graeme Souness, a stalwart of the Liverpool midfield that dominated English and European football in the 1970s and 80s.
“The amount of work he gets through is overlooked by the technique he has as well. When he wins it, puts a tackle in, he gets his head up and generally makes the best pass that’s on offer.”
Liverpool still end three points better off than City compared to where they started the festive season, with Klopp admitting he would have paid to be in the position his side are now at the start of the campaign.
But the mental strength of Klopp’s men will now be tested if they are to succeed where other Liverpool sides have failed, most notably in 2008/2009 and 2013/2014 when leading at Christmas, in ending a 29-year drought without
winning the league.