Man City Gets Back in Title Race vs. Liverpool By Finest of Margins
The Premier League title race, it turns out, is still alive. Manchester City’s 2-1 victory over Liverpool has cut the gap at the top of the table to four points, and after a December in which Jurgen Klopp’s side gained 12 points on the champion, the momentum has perhaps begun to shift back. In a game of extraordinary intensity and quality, City’s success was the result of the finest of margins.
Centimeters decided it–in a pair of instances quite literally. When John Stones’s first-half clearance hit his goalkeeper, Ederson, and looped goalwards, he recovered to hook the ball away. In the era before goalline technology, there would have been days of debate as to whether the ball had crossed the line, but the technology showed 1.1 centimeters of the ball had remained in play, not fully over the line.
That chance came directly after a Sadio Mane effort cannoned back off the post. When Leroy Sane hit the frame of the same goal in the second half, his ball ricocheted in. That’s not a matter of luck, but it is a tiny fraction: a couple of centimeters one way or the other, and Liverpool might have scored and City not.
Liverpool may also point to a lunging foul by Vincent Kompany on Mohamed Salah that resulted only in a yellow card when it could easily have been red. On another day, Liverpool could have walked away with the points. This was tight, engrossing and engaging, and the result has the side effect of reigniting a title race between two of the best sides English football has ever known.
City, which entered the day seven points back, had to win, and that meant Pep Guardiola had to be slightly more aggressive than he had been in the reverse fixture at Anfield, when he had set out his side in a 4-4-2 and kept his fullbacks, Kyle Walker in particular, deep. Here, there was no place for Walker, still consigned to the bench after his nightmare against Crystal Palace, but more telling was the selection at left back. With Benjamin Mendy injured and Fabian Delph suspended, Guardiola shifted Aymeric Laporte across to deal with the threat of Salah rather than trusting the inexperienced Oleksandr Zinchenko. That seemed an uncharacteristically cautious move, but it was one that was vindicated by Salah’s lack of impact in the game before moving into the center in the second half.
Liverpool endured a nervy start, but, once it had come through that, it seemed in control, holding City largely at arm’s length and looking dangerous on the counter. Sergio Aguero’s predatory instincts combined with a momentary lapse from Dejan Lovren, though, combined to create the opener, with the Argentinian darting in front of the Croatian before turning and lashing the ball in from a tight angle–the seventh straight home game in which Aguero has scored against Liverpool.
It was City then that looked comfortable. Liverpool, forced to be more proactive, looked strangely lacking in inspiration, just as the same midfield–Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum–had when chasing the game at Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
Klopp responded by removing Milner, bringing on Fabinho and changing shape to move Salah into a central role. Liverpool immediately offered a greater threat and pulled level as the two fullbacks, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, combined to set up Roberto Firmino for a point-blank header. That would have kept the lead at seven points, and Liverpool would have remained an overwhelming favorite going forward.
But as the game opened up, it was City that found the winner. Raheem Sterling, who has tended not to play especially well against his former club, drifted across the pitch and put the ball into the path of Sane as Aguero’s astute run created space. The German's shot was low and hard and hit the post at just the right angle to bounce in.
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When it had to, City came up with a goal. There have been doubts, given the way Guardiola’s controlling style denies them agency, about the capacity of its players to seize a game that is drifting away from them, but here Fernandinho and Aguero were superb, Bernardo Silva tireless and Sterling and Sane incisive when it was needed most. City won not because of a tactical masterplan or because of deep-rooted structural issues. It won because it came out on top in the key moments, which isn’t always the case for Guardiola-coached sides.
And the consequence of that is that, for the first time in years, the Premier League may have a proper nip-and-tuck race to the finish line.