In the away end, there were songs about winning the European Cup and, this being Liverpool, thousands of euphoric voices joining in with the follow-up shout of “again”. And why not? Liverpool had survived a whirlwind, to use Jürgen Klopp’s description, and at the end of this epic tussle it was a sunrise of a smile on the German’s face. His team were in the semi-finals and Manchester City, once again, had been cut adrift from a competition where they repeatedly fall short.
Pep Guardiola’s team will have to make do with the Premier League title whereas Liverpool will go into Friday’s draw because over the two legs they were more clinical during their spells of superiority. Klopp’s team had the better balance between attack and defence and, crucially, they got lucky with the disallowed goal that brought Pep Guardiola to the point of spontaneous combustion at half-time. Guardiola’s fit of pique led to his banishment from the dugout and City will wonder what might have happened if they had taken a 2-0 lead into the second half.
Instead, City have lost three games in six days, conceding eight goals in the process, and Klopp has been proven correct with his assertion that the best way to take on the Premier League champions-elect is to examine an accident-prone defence. Nicolás Otamendi’s part in Roberto Firmino’s goal was the case in point and, once that had gone in, the two sets of players were going through the motions for the rest of the match. City needed five goals, or roughly one every three minutes, to save themselves and, realistically, the game had in effect been settled once Mohamed Salah clipped in Liverpool’s equaliser earlier in the second half.
Might it have been any different if Leroy Sané’s goal, late in the first half, had not been wrongly given offside? Nobody will ever know but it was certainly true that City were threatening a remarkable feat of escapology in that part of the match. They had scored inside two minutes, courtesy of Gabriel Jesus. They still had Sergio Agüero to bring off the bench and the Etihad was overdosing on optimism. For the game to finish with an aggregate 5-1 score distorts the fact the occasion was full of drama and suspense until Salah’s goal dramatically changed the complexion of the evening.
Ultimately, though, Liverpool had inflicted a grievous result in the first leg when they scored three times in a 19-minute blitz and, importantly, did not concede an away goal. Guardiola’s team gave everything. They chased every ball, attacked from every angle and, for a long time, the early goal encouraged the sense there were more to follow. It would be exaggerating to say Liverpool were on their knees but they did need to catch their breath and City were merciless in that respect. If the ball was out of play, someone in blue would dash to get it back. This was not a side licking its wounds from the humbling of Anfield or Saturday’s ordeal against Manchester United. It was the best team in England with adrenaline running through their veins, playing like they believed anything was achievable.
In the first half, anyway. Liverpool were much more composed after the break and Guardiola was always taking a calculated gamble fielding an experimental three-man central defence, including two players, Kyle Walker and Aymeric Laporte, who doubled up as attacking full-backs. Otamendi’s selection ahead of Vincent Kompany was difficult to fathom and, apart from Fernandinho, City’s line-up was otherwise filled with attacking players.
Nobody can ever question Guardiola’s sense of adventure, but the potential for danger was obvious when Liverpool have such a brilliantly effective counter-attacking side.
Sure enough, the killer moment arrived in the 56th minute. Salah’s through ball gave Sadio Mané, Liverpool’s outstanding player, the initial chance and for a split-second it seemed as though Fernandinho might concede a penalty. Salah did not wait to find out. He was on the ball in a flash, swerving to the left of City’s goalkeeper, Ederson, before shaping his body for a tricky angled finish. He was an island of composure, floating in his 39th goal of the season with a delicate chip into the corner.
Firmino’s goal came straight from Otamendi’s misplaced pass and, unfortunately for City, the defender’s faults have been a recurring theme against top-level opponents. Otamendi has chosen a bad week to produce his worst form but it is no coincidence that it has come in three games when opposition players have taken him on, knowing he can be vulnerable under pressure.
Liverpool, on the other hand, refused to buckle when the pressure was rising dangerously close to intolerable. Raheem Sterling, in particular, was a constant menace in the first half and prominently involved in the opening goal, squaring the decisive pass for Jesus after Virgil van Dijk’s clearance had been cut out. Van Dijk was knocked off balance in the process but his appeals for a free-kick were futile. Jesus turned in Sterling’s pass and Liverpool’s night had suddenly become a lot more perilous.
To put it into context, the first half here was even more one-sided than the corresponding 45 minutes in Liverpool’s favour last week. The difference, of course, was that Liverpool scored three times at Anfield in a 19-minute blitz whereas City, with home advantage, found it harder to turn their early superiority into the hard currency of goals. Bernardo Silva crashed one shot off the post and Sané’s disallowed goal was a wretched piece of officiating because the ball came to him from a Liverpool player, James Milner, rather than one of his team-mates. Enraged, Guardiola strode on to the pitch at half-time to remonstrate with the Spanish referee, Antonio Mateu Lahoz, but went too far with his eyeballing and matador-like hand movements. He was “upstairs”, in the Colin Bell stand, to watch Liverpool’s second-half turnaround and a dismal week for City take another turn for the worse.