How Liverpool, Manchester City brought out the best in each other to elevate Premier League to new heights

MANCHESTER — Perhaps the most glowing praise that you can offer to this game is that it exceeded the hype. This was, they said, the biggest match the Premier League had seen in years. The crowning moment of the greatest rivalry the English game has seen.

This should have been rank hyperbole. Yet after 90 absorbing, elegant and explosive minutes of football played to a technical standard that was, largely, the sport at its very pinnacle, it almost felt as if this match had been undersold.

It was not the best performance Liverpool have delivered this season. Yet whilst they lacked the authority in possession to impose themselves on this game Jurgen Klopp’s side showed the character and fighting spirit to stay in the contest and at least to slightly disrupt their opponents’ rhythm, equalizing twice in the 2-2 draw. When the best chances came their way Diogo Jota and Sadio Mane were razor sharp. That was just about enough.

It might have been the best performance City have delivered this season. It was certainly one of those games you would use to bolster a case for Pep Guardiola’s brilliance. Though his team did not deviate from his classic system there were just enough tweaks to discombobulate Liverpool in a first half where the titleholders may have run away with the game. There was a ferocity to their early press that put one in mind of the aggression Klopp’s sides would bring to their meetings in Germany and early battles on these shores. 

Even Virgil van Dijk discovered reserves of skittishness as Gabriel Jesus hurtled after him in the first half, the Brazilian having emerged from three months on the fringes with a point to prove. Across on the other flank Phil Foden was a cocktail of flicks, feints and fearlessness, his sole desire being to expose every deficiency in Trent Alexander-Arnold’s defense. On days like today it can be hard to know whether any player on the pitch is an off-ball liability or whether it is simply beyond reasonable expectations that they hold back the tide that is coming their way.

There are few better anchoring midfielders than Fabinho, but he was swept out to sea by the direct running of Kevin De Bruyne, who rose to this occasion with a performance of the utmost drive and delicacy. From minute one to his final perfectly placed through ball for Riyad Mahrez to chip over Alisson and the bar, he was this game’s centrifugal force. “Kevin De Bruyne he (sound of a rocket through the sky)” was how Klopp described it.

Much of City’s excellence flowed through their Belgian whilst Liverpool quickly concluded that they had precious few options but to foul him once he had got in full flight.

They might have wished they learned that before the fifth minute. Moments after he had bullied past Fabinho and slipped through Jesus only to see Raheem Sterling put his shot too close to Alisson, De Bruyne took matters into his own hands. An unremarkable left-footed drive at the end of a bustling run deflected wickedly off Joel Matip and City were ahead. You make your own luck in this game and De Bruyne saw enough of his own fine work wasted by teammates that he was entitled to get a helping hand off Liverpool.

“To be fair I think we played excellent,” he said. “The way we played was very good and we should score more. It is what it is. It was a great game.

“I think it should (be more before halftime) but we were still winning. The way the second half started is the disappointment. I think we played great and created enough chances to win the game.”

City had been warned what might happen if they offered Liverpool an inch. A magnificently constructed move by Andrew Robertson and Alexander-Arnold teed up Jota to bring the game level. There could have been further equalizers but for the exceptional defending of Aymeric Laporte at the back.

That is not to suggest that City were at all blasé about their task. The only person who could be accused of such a relaxed approach was Ederson. Whilst those around him threw themselves into this top-of-the-table clash with little energy and nerves, City’s goalkeeper looked for all the world to be under the delusion he was kicking the ball around in the park with his mates. It was glorious. As the ball rolled onto his own goal line he betrayed no nerves at having miskicked it with Jota looming large. Seconds later Alexander-Arnold’s ambitious shot from halfway was saved by the Brazilian’s chest when two hands would surely have sufficed.

He would have needed plenty more to get near Mane’s equalizer right after halftime. It was Liverpool at their best, a sight seen rather infrequently in this match but devastating when it clicked. Mohamed Salah, quieter than might have been expected, fizzed a pass into Mane’s path, the sort that is so tantalizingly within Kyle Walker’s reach that your first instinct is to label it a mistake he did not reach it. But if a player who excelled at recovery runs in the first half was outfoxed at the very start of the second perhaps it might just be another of those moments where good attack simply trumped good defense? 

Liverpool were the team of moments, stunning whipped passes from Thiago from the edge of his box to Salah 45 yards ahead or the fizzing darts upfield by substitute Luis Diaz. It was City who were the game’s dominant force even if it should be noted that the barricades Van Dijk and company set up on their 18-yard line meant that all those final third touches and penalty box entries translated into precious few clear-cut opportunities.

When they did City were just not quite there. Guardiola had it right when he said that his side had “left [Liverpool] alive.” After spurning a chance early on Sterling only found his shooting boots in an offside position, moving a moment too soon to claim De Bruyne’s through ball and slot past Alisson from an offside position. With one of the game’s final kicks Mahrez deemed an attempt chip over Alisson to be the best course of action rather than squaring to Phil Foden. Once more it was a chance that only came through the brilliance of De Bruyne. On a pitch dotted with stars, he shone by far the brightest.

He will need to do so again. Nothing but the very best will separate these two, whether in the remaining games of the title race as they battle each other from afar, next week’s FA Cup semifinal or the Champions League final that looms large on both their horizons. “We have to be nearly perfect to beat this team over a game and over a season,” said Klopp after the final whistle. He acknowledged that winning seven of seven might be what is needed to win the title.

City and Liverpool bring the very best out of each other; it is precious little surprise that Klopp and Guardiola were embracing at the final whistle, that Jesus and Roberto Firmino were arm in arm as they left the Etihad pitch.

After all, if you were up close and personal against one of these two teams how could you be filled with anything other than an overwhelming sense of admiration for the excellence which they displayed today?

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