It is rare that matches between the top footballers can live up to the bill. They usually cancel each other out, the fear of losing far outweighs the benefit of winning, and you can get an odd target here or there in matches that have a lot of suspense and intrigue, but little that happens.
Manchester City and Liverpool don’t really believe in this as neither really knows how to back up, as they proved in today’s 2-2 draw. Aside from games where Liverpool have every central defender on the roster who looks like the Black Knight, these encounters were captivating, along with the tension and drama inherent in them. They are the football version of the Battle of Gondor, with each side throwing everything at the other, including itself.
They put down another classic today, at least in the second half. As it was only one half that was truly competitive, City are likely to feel sad they didn’t win, although a draw on the road against one of their closest rivals makes it a better result for them than for Liverpool. Especially when coupled with their win at Chelsea last week, meaning they have taken four points from their two toughest games on the slate.
Still, City could have easily put these down in the first half, then sat on Liverpool’s chest for the first 10 minutes for the next 35 like an older brother putting the typewriter on the younger one. Liverpool could not escape their own end, and their usual deadly counter had their wings cut off in the hangar. With Diogo Jota starting for Roberto Firmino on the Liverpool frontline, this meant that their three forwards hit the net against City’s backline without anyone dropping out to provide an outlet. But City’s pressure and incision means that every pass against them has to be utterly perfect, and if they aren’t, teams immediately lose the ball back to them.
Before City, Phil Foden ate James Milner for lunch on the left, vomited him up, then ate him again. But every time City have moved into promising positions, the lack of centre-forward that Pep Guardiola was clearly concerned about was Kpet rearing its ugly head. Crosses over the penalty area would be missed by an inch, or a wrong touch here or there, and you couldn’t help but feel that a seasoned striker would be there sooner rather than later.
Liverpool couldn’t help but be better in the second half, which for these teams just means getting more in the opponent’s face. The thing with these two teams is that the margin of error is minuscule. City’s level didn’t drop that much, but just enough that Liverpool’s press suddenly caused turnover and possession on the pitch rather than just being worked through.
Liverpool also boast perhaps the one thing City don’t have, an attacker who will create and score simply because they feel like it. His name is Mo Salah:
Joao Cancelo’s attempt at tackling Salah, which opened Liverpool’s first goal, can best be described as ‘kindergarten’, but the run and pass are still world-class.
If City don’t have the individual brilliance up front, they make more and make up for it in team cohesion and understanding, as their two goals were orchestrated at the Beethoven level:
Both could have easily won it late, with a Rodri block on Fabinho looking at a completely open net more like a point block (in terms of covered ground to get there) saving the game for City and Liverpool and dodging some late chances of their own.
Liverpool were lucky as Milner should have been sent off before they prevented 2-1 for a second yellow card, which would have been the perfect end to his buffet afternoon.
We played three games between City, Liverpool and Chelsea, with City’s win over Chelsea being the only decisive result. And that was by a single goal. The result puts Chelsea on top, but if things are indeed so close between the three, City can be confident that both will have to take advantage of trips to the Etihad later in the season.
What the game really was was an advertisement for the Premier League. While its size, influence and money have swallowed the European game in recent years, here’s why. No other league will throw games and teams of this quality on the reg like the Premier League can, that’s why everyone is watching.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to smoke eight cigarettes at a time and maybe throw up the lungs that I’m damaging so badly.