On an emotionally charged afternoon at an Anfield Stadium that had been filled long before kick off, Liverpool emerged victorious after a hard earned 3-2 victory against title favourites Manchester City, meaning 4 wins from 4 games would leave them as Premier League champions.
The predictions that this game would be a classic came true and, following an impeccably observed silence in memory of the 96 Liverpool fans who died 25 years ago at Hillsborough, 90 minutes of open and thrilling football entertained to eyes of the football world.
Brendan Rodgers named an unchanged 4-3-3 team that earned, in rather unflattering fashion, 3 points at Upton Park last weekend. Mamadou Sakho retained his place in the starting line-up after stepping in for the injured Daniel Agger in the previous match. Despite City’s potent attack force, Liverpool were to attack the game in the same fashion we have become accustomed to this season.
As for the Sky Blues, their star-man (if there could be a single one in their stellar squad) Sergio Aguero just failed to muster enough fitness in time to earn a starting place in their flexible 4-5-1 formation, topped by the imposing Edin Dzeko. The one change Manuel Pellegrini made to his expensive starting XI was swapping Gael Clichy in for Aleksander Kolarov at left-back; the two have been constantly swapped in and out all season depending on opposition and location. Luckily for City, Vincent Kompany was able to play from the start despite late injury concerns for the Belgian.
Upon winning the customary toss, captain Kompany opted to make Liverpool attack the Kop end in the first half, contrary to what the Reds tend to prefer, possibly to do anything to make the home team feel more uncomfortable. The desired effect, however, was not achieved. After 2 minutes, Liverpool were enjoying the lions share of the ball, despite players like David Silva and Yaya Toure amongst the opposition. The first chance of the match came in the 3rd minute, with Philippe Coutinho dragging a 20 yard shot a fair distance wide. Tone set? Perhaps, though the shooting would have to improve.
The early pressure soon told on the visitors. 19 year old Raheem Sterling, as he has done before against the likes of Arsenal, makes a huge impact in a big game as the England winger shimmied and shuffled superbly to find ample space in the box to slot the ball into the semi-open net: the youngsters’ 7th goal of the season and certainly his most important. It was Suarez who provided a wonderful assist to Liverpool’s 100th goal of the season in all competitions. It was an emphatic start from Liverpool, who were clearly spurred on by the deafening home crowd.
The early dominance rumbled on, as an 8th minute Gerrard corner just evaded the attacking centre-backs in the box. City began to quell the chance creation, but not the possession. This trend continued for much too long for their liking, as the usual inventive Blues made precious little in the opening 20 minutes. In fact, it wasn’t until the best part of 20 minutes had elapsed before they registered their first effort; a speculative Toure shot from 30 yards curled comfortably high and wide. The awkward effort was costly for the devastating midfielder, who injured himself in the process. Javi Garcia replaced him soon after, and he made an impression very quickly; sliding through Jordan Henderson to earn himself a yellow card.
Sturridge had come close to doubling the Reds’ lead, but his open-bodied attempt from a whipped Sterling cross didn’t trouble Joe Hart. Following this, Jesus Navas earned City a corner, which was cleared well by Jon Flanagan.
The next vital moment came in the 27th minute. And oh how vital it was. After a Coutinho corner found Steven Gerrard in a worrying amount of space in the box, Joe Hart made a brilliant reaction save to deny his England team mate which lead to a second successive corner. This time Hart had no chance as Gerrard’s typically perfect cross found finisher supreme, Martin Skrtel, in space at the near post, and the defenders’ header rifled into the far corner of the net. 2-0 to Liverpool, who’s now-expected first half brilliance was reaping rewards yet again.
This goal, similar to Sterling, was Skrtel’s 7th of the season, which means he is now the highest scoring defender in the Premier League.
Liverpool were in no way finished. An unbelievable Coutinho pass found Suarez out wide in the final third, and the Uruguayan’s pass found Sturridge. The strikers’ cut back ricocheted out for a corner. The set-piece presented the in-the-mood home side with another opportunity, but Sturridge’s soft header was collected by Hart.
The better chances were clearly going Liverpool’s way, but this wasn’t for a lack of trying from City. It was mainly down to Liverpool’s defence, who seem to have sorted out the goal-leaking problem they had earlier in the season. One such example of this was when Dzeko broke free into the box, only to be denied a chance by a sliding Gerrard. The resulting corner was dealt with too, as Mignolet’s punch diffused the pressure. This was only temporary. Shortly afterwards, Liverpool and Sakho survived strong appeals when the latter dived into challenge Dzeko, but the strikers’ theatrical fall left Mark Clattenburg with reasonable doubt about the validity of the claims.
In the 38th minute City received a free kick, 20 yards out and in a central position. Without set-piece specialist Toure though, City failed to make it count, with Silva cannoning his shot against the wall. In reply, Suarez tried his customary ambitious effort. His 20 yard left-footed volley rolled harmlessly wide. During the dying seconds of the first half, Man City were presented with their best opportunity yet. The ball fell kindly to Fernandinho, who could only direct his volley into the diving path of Mignolet – the Belgian again rescuing the Reds.
Half time, and Liverpool had retained their 2 goal cushion despite late pressure from the, initially, shocked visitors. Liverpool’s early initiative is what allowed them to enjoy this lead, but as City recovered from their shock they began to show signs of being the threatening attacking force that has been so consistent throughout the season. David Silva especially was dragging them back into it with his ball retention and chance creation. It was the Reds’ attacking force that had been most successful thus far. Moreover, their stylish defending (calm play out of the back, clearing under pressure and so on) is what would have pleased Rodgers the most, considering the back four is supposed to be the Anfield outfits’ Achilles heel. The Anfield crowd had also played its part, with the much-anticipated atmosphere pushing their team through the match. Apart from the crowd, Coutinho and his uncharacteristically good tackling and Sterling with his characteristic trickiness had been highlight performances for Liverpool at this stage. Skrtel, with his goal and defensive prowess, was another notable player.
The away team came out with intent. After 6 minutes of the new half had passed, it took a last ditch tackle from Skrtel to prevent a one-on-one situation for Dzeko. 5 minutes later, the ball was in the back of the Liverpool net but Milner had failed to keep the ball in play before crossing to Silva, who poked home. In the midst of this, Luis Suarez could have been sent off for a second bookable offence. After a card for a late challenge in the first half, he then dived from a Martin Demichelis tackle. The 29-goal man should consider himself lucky to have completed the game.
Back to City’s ever-increasing pressure; and in an identical move to the goal that had been disallowed 60 seconds previous, a Milner cross found Silva who steered it in to give City more than just a little hope of getting back into the game. 2-1, 57 minutes gone, and Liverpool were on the ropes.
Just two minutes later, a mad scramble in the box was eventually dealt with by a heroic Gerrard who was visibly desperate to keep Liverpool’s lead intact. The skippers’ efforts were in vain, as in the 63rd minute Silva attempted a cross which somehow found its way into the Kop ends net following unfortunate deflections off Glen Johnson and the helpless Mignolet. Man City had equalised in bizarre fashion. Was the Liverpudlian title dream crumbling?
To compound the Anfield misery, Sturridge was forced off the pitch after suffering a knock of some form (information of which is low, but it is rumoured to be a hamstring issue). The striker was replaced by Joe Allen in an attempt to regain control, which had been lost after the interval. As Liverpool tried to establish a foothold, Suarez found himself tangling with Kompany in the City penalty area, but Clattenburg waved away his appeals for Liverpool’s 13th penalty of the season.
Mignolet was again called into action as a loose Henderson pass crossed his own box into the path of Milner, who blasted a low effort at the keeper from 12 yards out. Then, Allen had his first involvement. After receiving the ball in the box, he attempted to back heel it to Suarez but was denied by Kompany. Then came the moment Liverpool fans were dreading; Aguero took his warm-up attire off and entered the fray in place of Dzeko. The fit-again poacher has tended to return in style from his various injury concerns this season. His impact was immediate, and nearly pivotal. It was his cross-box pass that found a trenching Silva, but the Spaniards studs weren’t long enough to make it 3-2 to the visitors.
The last time Liverpool were in a title race, they consistently worked themselves out of tricky situations, in the face of seemingly un-winnable situations. Comebacks, tricky away wins, and taking the lead out of the blue were all common throughout the campaign. This season, they’ve recaptured that magic. Sunday was the best example. Seemingly on the ropes, with a draw being the best result they could hope for, little Philippe Coutinho mustered up a piece of brilliance to curl an off-balance effort into Joe Hart’s left corner following a weak Kompany clearance. It was a beautiful moment for the club, on what is the most emotionally charged weekend of every year; this year especially.
77 minutes gone, and it’s all changed. The crowd has found its unbelievable vocals again and Liverpool carved open a glorious chance for Suarez who was denied by a combination of Hart and the flag. Inevitably though, City piled on the pressure for the final ten minutes. Liverpool’s defence had been questionable in the second half but here they produced a solid ending, clearing a succession of free kicks and corners.
In the 93rd minute, the pressure reached its peak when Henderson challenged Samir Nasri with a high foot on the half way line. A straight red for the man who had put in another Forest Gump-like performance, who exited to huge applause from all 4 sides of the ground. Lucas was brought on in place of Sterling for both defensive aid and to replace Henderson’s leg work.
The full time whistled could barely be heard over a rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone and scenes of intense emotion ensued, with even hard man Steven Gerrard shedding tears, along with countless Liverpool fans.
The tears spoke more words than a match report ever could. To say it wasn’t a hard earned victory would be harsh on City, who challenged Liverpool to the very last whistle, as expected. David Silva was a stand out performer for the Sky Blues. As previously mentioned, his ball retention and chance creation, not to mention his involvement in both of City’s goal, scoring the first and assisting the own goal afterwards. For that, he earns the majority of people’s Man of the Match awards, including mine. Raheem Sterling was another candidate for this accolade though, not just for his goal. He ran the solid City defence riot for the full 93 minutes that he was on the pitch, while Coutinho and Milner also played significant roles in their teams’ attacking prowess.
A classic at Anfield on Sunday afternoon, then, which leaves Liverpool 4 games away from glory. Win them all… You know the rest.
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