With their backs to the wall, Manchester City came out fighting but Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firimino killed off chances of a fightback as the Reds edged the Sky Blues 2-1 (5-1 aggregate) to knock Pep Guardiola’s fancied side out of the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday night.
After their 3-0 humbling at Anfield, City were always up against it, but Gabriel Jesus’ early opener had given the Citizens hope that a remarkable comeback was on the cards.
The hosts did dominate the first-half but failed to convert the plethora of chances that fell their way and with Liverpool possessing the superlative talents of Salah and Firmino, there was always the chance that Jurgen Klopp’s men would land a killer blow on the counter.
And that’s exactly what they did in the second-half, to eventually put the tie beyond reach, continuing the club’s rich tradition in continental competition in dominating fashion as they did a European double over the previously-dominant Sky Blues.
Its was a manic affair at the Etihad Stadium and here are the five main talking points:
Pep changes system to three at the back…and it works somewhat
Eyebrows were raised when Pep Guardiola’s starting XI was announced for City had only three recognised defenders on the pitch.
Speculation was rife that defensive midfielder Fernandinho would be playing as central defender alongside Fernandinho but as the match started, it became apparent that it was a three-man backline of Aymeric Laporte, Kyle Walker and Nicolas Otamendi.
Fernandinho would be sitting just in front of them, allowing the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and David Silva greater freedom to attack and as City raced into an early lead, it looked like the strategy would finally end Jurgen Klopp’s ‘hoodoo’ over Pep Guardiola.
And Liverpool were overwhelmed by their opponents for once, with the Sky Blues camping in the Reds’ half for almost the entire 45 minutes.
Liverpool were missing Jordan Henderson, yes, but their midfield (consisting of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jame Milner) were chasing shadows for the most parts of the opening half.
Still, as the adage goes, possession doesn’t win you matches..
Refereeing blunders cost City dear?
With modern football played at a breakneck pace as it is, one can almost be forgiven for some officiating blunders in a tie that had its speed cranked even higher.
Almost, for match official Antonio Miguel Mateu definitely had a stinker, at least from the City point of view.
Just after the half-hour mark, Sterling went down inside the box after minimal contact from Andy Robertson and while the Spanish official was right in waving play on then, barely a minute later and the Liverpool fullback was at it again, only this time he was counting his stars for not having given away a spot-kick.
For the Scot had his hands all over Sterling but perplexingly, the referee took Liverpool’s side, much to the consternation of the home crowd.
Then came the defining moment of the half and perhaps even the tie as Leroy Sane’s goal was incorrectly chalked out for offside as the interval came near.
Pep Guardiola was understandably incensed and let the referee know what he thought of him, which wasn’t smart in hindsight as he was promptly sent to the stands and from then on, City’s already-onerous task truly became mission impossible.
Sing Mohamed…Mohamed Salah!
To plagiarise Jonny Wakelin’s iconic number normally would be classified as sacrilege on most days, but even ‘The Greatest’ would let this indiscretion slide, just this once.
While Liverpool’s flying No.11 may not be black, he’s very much a Superman to each and every person associated with the Merseysiders.
It wasn’t a vintage Mo Salah performance by any stretch of the imagination, probably because he wasn’t fully fit, but the Egyptian still managed to pop up with a goal that effectively killed of the tie.
At that stage, the comeback, however unlikely it may have seemed, was still on.
City’s inability to score more than one in the first-half would to haunt them when Salah converted probably the only chance to come his way.
How Pep Guardiola must be rueing the profligacy his own players seemed to be suffering from…
Lack of clinical finishing the difference in the end?
City dominated the first-half, not unlike what Liverpool had done in the first leg at Anfield.
Liverpool didn’t have time to breathe, forget spring an attack, for the first forty five minutes.
The possession stats, chances created states, every conceivable department you could think of and City had the edge. Save one and you probably guessed it.
It was always going to be an uphill battle to overhaul a 3-0 deficit but after going ahead within two minutes, City really should have scored at least one more before half-time.
One goal over the course of 180 minutes isn’t quite cutting it, is it?
And that’s three losses in a row (all competitions), for those who were counting and you can bet your house that we’ll be hearing more of City’s ‘mental fragility’ in the future.
Did Manchester City peak too early in the season?
No time like now!
City have won the League Cup already and are almost certainly on the cusp of a Premier League title.
Compared to most of their rivals, that’s a insanely successful season but after all the talk of a quadruple, it seems more of a let down than anything else.
They’ve lost four out of their last six games and did suffer the ignominy of getting knocked out of the FA Cup to a lower-league side (Wigan Athletic).
To put the aforementioned stats into context, till the middle of January City had lost just one game in all competitions and that was effectively a dead rubber against a desperate Shaktar Donetsk side.
From four titles, the number has been whittled down to ‘just’ two and while that’s far more than the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea et all, it
Up next are a vibrant Tottenham Hotspur side who aren’t afraid of anyone and while City are still overwhelming favourites to clinch the Premier League, the more stumbles they take en route to the title, the more ammunition for their critics, who’ll be looking at next season already.