Liverpool suffered their first Premier League defeat of the season at the hands of Manchester City, in a hard-fought, gripping match that ended 2-1 to the Citizens. But whilst in many respects this game felt like a title-decider, the reality is that it is anything but. Whilst it was a must-win for City, and a game that ultimately they were able to win to keep themselves bang in the title hunt, Liverpool still maintain a four-point lead at the top of the table and have now played both games against their biggest title-rivals, as well as a second game against Arsenal.
For Liverpool now, the season is about winning 42 points if they can against the 14 teams outside the top six that they still have to face for a second time, and the simple truth is that there was absolutely nothing on display against Man City to demonstrate that that’s not a plausible objective, with Liverpool 14/14 already against those same teams – having picked up twelve points from their seven games against the top six opposition.
Indeed, if anything, Liverpool’s game against City should be more proof for Liverpool fans that this team has what it takes to get over the line and secure the title, for several reasons. Liverpool are a side that look ready to deliver the goods.
In recent weeks, I’ve highlighted several factors that I felt were really important in our phenomenal December run: all-round team performance; a belief and mental strength; Klopp being pro-active with his subs; and luck. All of those except the latter were on display against Man City.
Firstly, as much as the narrative around the City game has been one of a missed opportunity, it was nevertheless a solid performance from the Reds, particularly defensively. Despite conceding twice, Liverpool managed to prevent Man City’s extremely talented midfield from gripping the game and limited them to largely a small selection of half-chances for most of the match. It’s just bad luck on their part that two of City’s immensely talented players were able to convert their sniffs of goal. There’s nothing seen in this game to suggest Liverpool’s solid defensive run can’t continue into the back half of the season, particularly with Joël Matip close to a return, and Joe Gomez hopefully back before the Leicester clash at the end of the month – only two league games sit between now and then.
As maligned as the midfield trio of Hendo, Gini and Milner are, they largely coped with City’s vastly more talented players, and it took Fernandinho having the game of his life for City to edge the midfield battle. And whilst Salah was largely kept to the peripheries, Liverpool still carved out two golden chances, as well as a host of smaller chances.
This, of course, against the best team that the Reds will face in the league this year, with none of their remaining fixtures anywhere near as dangerous. The Reds have five very winnable games before a trip to Old Trafford, and five their last six games of the season should all be games that they’re looking to win. Neither Chelsea nor Spurs will be relishing their trip to Anfield either.
The belief and mental strength on display against City too could prove crucial. Despite the misfortune of the first half, Liverpool came out in the second half and were the better team for most of the second period, although City began to capitalise late on as the Reds surged forward and Lovren fell apart. Despite falling behind twice, there was a sense of belief in Liverpool’s play, and their equaliser was truly superb. It wasn’t until the very dying embers that things got a little desperate, but since the game, all of the messages from the players have followed the party line – don’t panic, stay calm. It’s still ours to lose. Of course, the true mental tests will come in the next few months, but there are no signs that the Reds aren’t up to the challenge.
Subs have become an increasingly important part of Liverpool’s season too, and it was nice to see Klopp haul off Milner before the hour mark, and be more proactive in switching to a 4-4-2, rather than sticking with the starting midfield when it was faltering. And it was less than five minutes after Sane put City back in front that Klopp turned to Xherdan Shaqiri, replacing the below par Sadio Mané. The fact that Shaqiri was woeful after coming on doesn’t offset the fact that Fabinho’s introduction was a big part of Liverpool’s strong second half performance.
And of course, the one thing that Liverpool cannot control, and the one thing that turned against them in this game, was luck. Mané should have scored his big chance, but with the ball coming off the inside of the post, it nevertheless was unlucky, although not quite as unlucky as the 11mm that prevented the ball crossing the line, not to mention that Salah was about that close to turning in the rebound. That’s not to mention the horrendous challenge Vincent Kompany somehow wasn’t sent off for, and of course, the fact that City’s two goals were unbelievable strikes.
The bottom line is that this was a game of extremely fine margins. And not only was there nothing to suggest that a team with significantly less quality than Man City can turn Liverpool over, there was also not much to suggest that Liverpool are a team who are about to turn themselves over. This was a largely composed, tactically decent, extremely difficult game of football, in which Liverpool didn’t disgrace themselves, didn’t implode, were largely if not on par with then superior to their opposition, and a game in which the title may not have been won, but it certainly wasn’t lost.
There’s a long way to go. 17 games is a lifetime in football and with Man City certain to put their collective foot down, Liverpool will need to match them. Right now, 102 points is the tally required to win the Premier League, and that has to be Liverpool’s target. That target will, of course, dip lower as City drop points (which surely they will again, with both Chelsea and Arsenal to play in February) but until they do, we need to keep assuming we need to win every game.
But the takeaway from the City game has to be that this Liverpool side are both mentally and physically capable of if not hitting 100 points, then certainly of winning enough games and securing enough points to hold off the defending Champions and winning the Premier League.
Pep Guardiola looked knackered and looked rattled. Liverpool will be angry and will be frustrated. This was a game that they could and maybe should have won, but the fact that they could and should have beaten City is just yet more evidence of the special nature of the team that Klopp is building. And they look ready to end the drought and deliver major silverware.
Up the Reds.