These are the nights upon which Liverpool has built its European heritage as a club. Manchester City arrived at Anfield with the most expensively assembled squad in the history of football, managed by a man who is widely regarded as the very best in the business. It’s important to place this context at the forefront of analyzing this tie.
Much of the pre-game talk suggested that City were simply too good a football team to be overawed by the occasion, intimidated by a vociferous, hostile Anfield crowd on a European night. History has shown countless great sides crumble under such atmospheres. As it turned out, City would be no exception to that tradition.
Just imagine being on that coach. The extra confidence boost it must give you to have 50,000 fans roaring you on like that before, during and after the game. And then the opposite effect for the City players.
The sea of red passion which lined the streets of Anfield transferred to within the stadium, a wall of ear-splitting noise orchestrated by 50,000 supporters hellbent on doing absolutely everything possible to influence the outcome of the game. Intimidate the visitors, inspire the players in Red. That’s the mantra of all this- and it worked.
City began relatively brightly, up until Mo Salah opened the scoring in front of the Kop after 12 minutes to send the crowd into raptures. Guardiola’s side disintegrated both mentally and physically in the 20 minutes that followed; a collection of world class footballers having the greatest season of their careers, transformed into a quivering wreck of nerves- regularly misplacing simple passes- by a unique chemistry of supporters and players performing in tandem to their very highest level.
That first goal only happens because of Firmino’s determination to never give up on a loose ball, stealing ahead of Kyle Walker to prod a pass toward’s the lurking Salah. The Brazilian’s pressing was almost superhuman in the opening 45 minutes, to the extent that City simply could not play out from the back in their usual, calm manner.
There’s something romantic, mystical even, about 11 footballers driven on to such heights by an atmosphere like that, elevating themselves to a level with which the opposition- regardless of their wealth of quality- simply could not live with.
When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rattles in the second from 25-yards, City are not just unnerved, but their confidence completely and utterly shattered by the red storm unfolding around them. It’s an absolute thunderbolt from a player who was widely mocked for his transfer fee when joining Liverpool, now stepping up to the plate with a magnificent all-round performance on the biggest stage against the highest caliber of opposition.
City’s midfield of Fernandino, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva have been virtually unplayable for much of the season; two of the best the Premier League has arguably ever seen, supported by one of the best anchoring midfielders around. Vastly superior in individual ability to Liverpool’s trio, they were unable to deal with the sheer relentless pressure they were put under throughout the first half. They were overrun and outplayed.
When Sadio Mané headed in Liverpool’s third on the night from Salah’s sumptuous chipped pass, the annihilation was complete. From that moment on, Liverpool had the commanding lead they could only have dreamed of. It would be a test of game management, discipline, and concentration for the remaining hour of the contest- qualities which Liverpool have long been accused of lacking, particularly against opposition of the highest quality.
If the first half was a demonstration of Jürgen Klopp’s blueprint of sensational, ruthless attacking football, the second half was equally impressive in terms of the manner in which Liverpool were able to dig in and withstand constant pressure from a City side desperately looking for an away goal to salvage a disastrous start to the tie.
Every single Liverpool player stepped up to the plate and made their contribution. Trent Alexander-Arnold put in one of the greatest performances by a Liverpool right by in many a year. He came in for plenty of criticism after recent games against Manchester United and Crystal Palace, and City clearly targeted him here with constant diagonal balls to isolate him one-on-one against one of the most precociously gifted wingers in world football at the moment, in Leroy Sané.
Trent dominated that battle all game, gettering the better of Sané time and time again with perfectly timed tackles, headers and interceptions. It was a remarkable display of maturity and passion from a 19-year-old kid, representing his hometown club, in the biggest game of his career, up against some of the most expensive footballers of all time. It was a performance to be proud of, in the extreme.
On the other side, Andy Robertson was typically terrific, exploiting Guardiola’s decision not to start Raheem Sterling by marauding up the left-flank throughout the first half. City could not deal with his bullish, driving runs, while he remained resolute as ever in his defensive duties in the second-half, effectively rendering City’s right-hand side impotent.
In the centre of defence, Virgil van Dijk delivered the kind of imperious display you would expect from the world’s most expensive defender, winning 100% of his duels and providing the commanding, composed presence which helped Liverpool successfully preserve a crucial clean sheet under immense pressure.
Alongside him, the much-maligned Dejan Lovren delivered the finest performance of his Liverpool career with aggressive, front-foot defending, constantly in the right place at the right time to clear any danger that came his way. He proved that he is capable of delivering at the highest level and he must now sustain this level if Liverpool are to progress further in the competition.
In front of the back four, Jordan Henderson gave a superb captain’s performance, snapping into challenges and breaking up play to stifle the threat of De Bruyne and Silva alongside James Milner, whose performances in midfield throughout the second half of this season have continued to surpass all expectations.
All across the pitch, there was quality and passion in abundance from Liverpool in order to manage the game so effectively after the first-half blitz.
This must go down as one of the all-time great Liverpool European performances; a display which will have made the rest of the continent stand up and notice. It’s a night of which the manager, the players and the supporters should be enormously proud. A collective spirit and unity that so few- if any- clubs are capable of harnessing to the same extent.
Importantly, the job is still only half done and the tie far, far from over. Liverpool, though, have put themselves in the best position they could possibly have conceived of at this stage. Something special is brewing.
Allez, allez, allez.