Manchester City were outstanding in the second half to secure a landmark win at Anfield and a significant Premier League victory
Manchester City showed Liverpool what being one of the greatest teams in Premier League history really looks like as they ended their Anfield hoodoo in emphatic fashion against the champions.
A missed penalty and an error in their own box looked like costing Pep Guardiola’s side in this fixture for the second time this season before Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling and Ilkay Gundoganstepped up to hand Liverpool a 4-1 defeat at a ground where they were invincible before this year.
Dropped points from United and Leicester before this game kicked off made the opportunity even more inviting for City.
The elephant in the stadium remained their dreadful record at Anfield: two wins in 52 visits and none in the last 19 attempts dating back to 2003 including some bruising beatings while Guardiola is in charge, who had never won here. An absence of fans made it easier in theory, but misplaced passes in their own half from Joao Cancelo and Ederson within the opening 70 seconds showed that it still remained a psychological hurdle to clear.
The City manager was vocal on the touchline in the early stages calling for patience from his players as Liverpool pressed high and well, but he will have felt the selection justified. Guilty previously of some wild selection calls here, Guardiola went with the players most in form to break their Anfield duck.
Aleks Zinchenko has featured more than Aymeric Laporte in recent weeks while the “not fully fit” Kyle Walker made the decision to start Joao Cancelo at right-back easier; up front, Gabriel Jesus was unfortunate to miss out after goals on his last two league starts but the decision to start with rotating false nines rather than a recognised striker looked smart on paper up against Jordan Henderson and Fabinho at centre-back.
City’s team ethic was there from the start, defending and attacking in packs to help each other out, but it was a cagey opening – perhaps reflective of the lack of confidence in both teams, current for Liverpool and historic here for the Blues.
The positive for Guardiola was that his team did not concede early as they have so often have at the ground, but when the chances started coming they were for the home team. Sadio Mane should have done better when heading over from eight yards in the 24th minute and Ederson was forced to turn over a solid Roberto Firmino effort soon after. Cancelo couldn’t get forward and Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva couldn’t get going in the middle, leaving Foden isolated as the front man.
Having been let off, City then wasted a golden opportunity to go ahead. Raheem Sterling had been bright on the left wing stretching the Liverpool defence and when he cut into the box his jinking run was too much for Fabinho, who couldn’t get out of the way in time and brought him down.
Up stepped Gundogan, the most consistent player of the last month and most reliable from the spot…and blazed it over the bar. He now joins the unwanted group of Mahrez (2018) and De Bruyne (2020) as City players to inexplicably miss penalties against Liverpool.
Moments like that are enough to make you believe in curses – or at the very least the importance of psychology in the game – and Guardiola, having been unable to hide his disgust at the aberration, will surely have reiterated the importance of taking their chances during the interval.
Redemption for the German came just five minutes into the second half.
For the second time in the game, Sterling penetrated the Liverpool box and when Alisson could only parry Foden’s shot into the six-yard box, Gundogan pounced to spark hearty celebrations on the pitch and from the dugout. For the first time in Guardiola’s reign, City had their noses in front at Anfield.
Then came something nobody in Blue expected: a Ruben Dias error.
The former Benfica centre-back has been almost flawless since his summer switch and a major part in transforming a defence that was one of the team’s biggest weaknesses into one of their biggest strengths. They had not conceded in six goals before this game.
Yet as a ball bounced near Ederson’s box just past the hour-mark Dias dallied uncharacteristically, allowing Salah to steal in before exaggerating the contact as Dias grabbed his arm and flinging himself to the floor. Michael Oliver pointed to the spot, and Salah sprung up to level.
Not for the first time this season, mistakes in both boxes had cost City against Liverpool.
Guardiola said on Friday that while he always played to win sometimes it made sense to settle for a draw if the scores were level in the closing stages. However, he brought on Gabriel Jesus for Mahrez in the 73rd minute and was instantly rewarded.
The Brazilian pressured a fumbling Alisson on the edge of the box and the home side could only clear to Foden 25 yards out, who slalomed between two defenders and put it on a plate for Gundogan to get his second.
And, with Alisson crumbling, they were far from done.
Another poor clearance from the Liverpool stopped went straight to Bernardo in the box and he scooped the ball to the far post for Sterling to head home; not only did the England man deserve it for his overal performance but that is a significant monkey off his back scoring his first goal at Anfield since the 2015 move.
Then Foden completed his second-half transformation into matchwinner when he cut in on his left in the box and thumped the ball into the top corner.
Here were the mentality monsters, responding to not one but two setbacks to rout the champions at a ground they have endured so many painful memories at when they could have settled for a point that would have been far useful for them than their opponents.
Throughout this recent rivalry, there has been a curious desire in some quarters to show that Liverpool have not just taken points off City but unhinged them and their manager somehow. Guardiola’s furious touchline reaction at Anfield inevitably became a popular meme among Scousers, but attempts to interpret Friday’s press conference events, for instance, as ‘the mask of the City manager slipping’ rather than ‘the facts of the Liverpool manager failing him’ were laughably weird.
Not least because Guardiola’s cool calculation has been key to his team hitting the summit of the Premier League. While some wrote them off after a slow start, he made sure the foundations were solid and then found a way with his players to make the attack click. As Klopp said in his (far cheerier) programme notes, what he has done this season shows why he is the best manager in the world.
This was the campaign that was meant to be a great leveller, but while 100 points may be off the table City’s run of nine straight victories and 13 unbeaten since the November defeat to Tottenham meant they could afford to lose at Anfield and still be clear at the top with a game in hand – a complete role-reversal from this fixture last season when a chaotic Blues team badly missing Ederson and Aymeric Laporte fell nine points behind the leaders.
With their tenth straight win, City move ten points clear of Liverpool – and five clear of second-placed United – with a game in hand on both.
Guardiola won’t allow the fat lady to sing just yet, but nobody looks capable of stopping another league title for this exceptional team who will surely go down in history as one of the best ever.