About the only good news last weekend from an Arsenal supporter’s perspective was that we were able, thanks to Liverpool, to celebrate Invincibles Day for another season. For those not fully versed in such matters, this is the point in the season when the last Premier League unbeaten record falls and the legacy of Arsenal’s undefeated 2003/04 title winners is safe for another year. It is symptomatic of just how far expectations have fallen under Arsène Wenger’s fading reign that such matters are celebrated so vehemently in lieu of actual bona fide success.
This year it was looking likely that we were going to be kept sweating until very late in the season, if we were to celebrate it at all, such has been the form of Pep Guardiola’s seemingly unstoppable Manchester City team who had swept all challenges aside in their preceding twenty-two games, dropping only four points in the process.
Ahead of the match at Anfield there was the suspicion, or at the very least hope, that if any team was up to the task of halting the sky blue juggernaut then it was Jürgen Klopp’s effervescent Liverpool side, in impressive form themselves having not lost in the previous thirteen matches.
Given the contrasting but complimentary football philosophies of these two coaches, we anticipated an exhilarating clash and that is exactly what we got. Right from the start Liverpool tore into City, pinning them back with the intense rigorous high pressing that is the hallmark of the charismatic German’s approach to the game. For once the normally so comfortable City looked uncertain on the ball amidst the maelstrom of pressure they faced.
Vitally Liverpool got the early goal their intensity merited when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, heir apparent to the now departed Coutinho, drove through the midfield and rifled a shot beyond the grasp of Ederson in the City goal. As someone who has watched the Ox’s career only fire in fits and starts over the last seven years, here was a clear indication that proper coaching and management is what has been needed to bring his undoubted talent to fruition.
Inevitably as the game wore on City gained some measure of control of the middle of the park and when Leroy Sane levelled the score five minutes before the break, there was a fear that Liverpool had merely stirred the hornets’ nest; City would now seize the initiate and restore the normal order of things.
However much to their credit Liverpool maintained their ferocious intensity in the second half and it paid off in an eight minute spell just past the hour mark in which they scored three goals as well as hitting the post as the City rear-guard buckled.
The first goal an exquisite chip after the underrated Firmino had outmuscled John Stones in the Liverpool box, the second a rasping drive from Mane that offered some form of redemption for his red card that led to Liverpool’s heavy defeat in the corresponding fixture at the Etihad in the autumn, the third an impudent 35-yarder from player of the season Salah catching Ederson stranded yards out of his goal.
Even watching on TV you could feel the stadium shaking, the expressions on the faces of the City players suggesting they weren’t used to being in this situation and didn’t know what to do about it. Having witnessed first-hand the Anfield club get on one of their trademark waves of momentum and shred your defence to pieces, I knew exactly how they felt.
At 4-1 with twenty minutes to go it should have been plain sailing, but such is Liverpool’s defensive Yin to their attacking Yang that in all too familiar circumstances they very nearly chucked away all their hard work. Two late goals the first from Bernardo Silva, the second in added time from former Klopp disciple Ilkay Gundogan, set up a nervy final few minutes. However Liverpool ultimately hung on and got the result that everyone else in the league wanted them to and that their performance truly merited.
Klopp now stands alone as the only manager with a winning record against Guardiola and certainly won another battle on Sunday; despite this defeat and the puncturing of their air of invincibility it seems that City and Guardiola are still destined to win the war.