By Suresh Nair
YOU never thought it was going to happen. You never imagined anyone could ever come close to this divine-like English Premier League football club called Manchester City.
Finally, on Sunday, the Sky Blues (City’s nickname) were brought to the ground in an awesome seven-goal thriller as Liverpool whipped up the 4-3 home victory, even leading 4-1 at one stage of the second half.
Wherever you were watching the match, from Singapore to Siberia, Mexico to Malaysia or Chile to Cameroon, you cannot deny that the legendary Anfield Stadium, quite literally, rocked and City, just as incredibly, struggled to cope.
Rather unbelievably, there was a nine-minute spell in the second-half when Liverpool scored three times, when they also struck the woodwork, and it seemed the magic that Pep Guardiola has weaved at City had been exposed as smoke and mirrors.
But never write off the Sky Blues. They are not 15 points clear, have not gone 22 Premier League without losing, for no reason and it was astonishing that, by the end, Liverpool were left hanging on.
Offer big salutes to the Reds (Liverpool’s nickname). They’re a fiery brand now under dynamic German maestro Jurgen Klopp. He’s a never-say-die fighter in the pulsating, open football he demands. This was a six-star win in his image. A victory full of heart and absolutism – and a little vulnerability, too.
But that is the trade-off if I know how Klopp’s heartbeat goes. It is the same with Guardiola and he was right in predicting that this Sunday fixture would be the sternest test his team had faced.
Rightly so, the overwhelming adjectives poured out. Pressing from another planet, Klopp called it, and it was. Out-of-this-world, says the Reds fans. And it had to be.
Whatever you may say, in this seven-goal thriller, City was knocked out of their stride. In my books, City was simply shell-shocked but they are champions-elect and showed it.
“It was a joy to watch,” Klopp says. It was. And that was testimony to City as well.
Klopp adds: “That’s a game which proves why many people love this game. That is football. That’s how football can look if two teams combine quality, skills with attitude. I never thought the result would be 4-1, even when we were 4-1 up, because for them it’s always possible to come back. But we deserved the three points.”
Mind you, Chelsea was the last team to beat City in the league in April of last year. The pundits thought they could emulate Arsenal’s feat from 2003-04 of going an entire Premier League season unbeaten. That was part of a 49-game unbeaten run – the longest in English top-flight history.
Looking back, this was the rather frightening dilemma that has confronted every Premier League manager: How do you stop the seemingly unstoppable Sky Blues, arguably the best on-form team in Europe, if not the world?
If I was a manager, I may well be shivering between the pants!
City is unbeaten in 33 games over almost nine months against domestic opponents. They have dropped points against only two teams this season, and on one of those occasions, they played the majority of the match with 10 men. They have scored almost five times as many league goals as they have conceded and could be crowned champions as early as in March.
MOST UNSOLVABLE PROBLEM
Jason Harbour of The Sun newspaper in London says: “English football’s most unsolvable problem, stopping Manchester City, has brought a range of answers from the original to the derivative, the typical to the out-of-character, the partial successes to the outright failures, resulting in the damage-limitation exercises to the damaging defeats.
“Mind you, hardly anyone gave Liverpool any chance. Last September’s game against City ended in a 5-0 defeat after Klopp changed to a 3-5-1 formation and strangely substituted Mohamed Salah at the interval. The evidence of this season is that quick, skillful players are as likely to trouble City as anyone.”
But Sunday’s awesome win raised plenty of eyebrows. It showed the denominators among the better efforts involve counter-attacking, congesting the midfield with defensive-minded, tactically disciplined players and focusing on set-pieces.
Take a bow, please. Liverpool must take all the credit. They will rightly celebrate a momentous victory that moves them to 18 unbeaten matches and offered proof that, with a half decent goalkeeper and an improved ability to keep it tight, they might put up a serious title-challenge next season.
For Guardiola and his men, this loss represents the start of a new challenge and ushers in the next phase of the season. It seems like every week, the boss has had to answer the question: “Can you finish the season unbeaten?” He’s continued to find different ways to answer, “No.” Now, Liverpool has resoundingly proven him right.
BLUEPRINT TO BEAT CITY
“The good thing for City is that tests like that at Anfield will be few and far between. It would be easy to look upon this as Liverpool setting the blueprint for how to beat City,” says Singapore’s award-winning former national coach Jita Singh.
“There is no other team in the league that plays like Liverpool. Klopp’s armoury of pacey, attack-minded players slot together so beautifully in this crucial match. There is not another side in England that could play like that against the Blues, and they even led 4-1 at one stage.”
But Jita says that it can’t go without note, though, that for Liverpool’s undoubted quality, City was still the masters of their own downfall. He adds: “Their opponents pressed well, but Pep’s men were reckless getting the ball out from the back and in trying to attack out of midfield. That was not Liverpool’s doing, it was a very rare off day from the travelling star-studded side.”
No worries, mate, the City fans will say. The new challenge is making sure the team bounces straight back. The reality is that to lose is always disappointing, but if ever there’s a time to suffer a league defeat it’s when you’ve already built up a 15-point cushion at the top.
For Guardiola it’s sort of a personal blow as he has lost five matches against Klopp in his managerial career, more than against any other manager.
He says sportingly: “Congratulations Liverpool for the victory. I have to give credit to the opponent. We know how difficult Anfield is and how aggressive Klopp’s side are. We tried to make good build-up and found the spaces sometimes, but credit to Liverpool. You have to live this kind of situation during the season.”
In my books, Guardiola is a perfectionist so the mistakes his team made will definitely hurt him. But he’s also a realist – he’s long known that a defeat would come and now he has a good understanding of how his team reacts to setbacks against a ruthless opponent.
SLOPPY 10 MINUTES
In this case, on hindsight, it was to have a very sloppy 10 minutes where they went from 1-1 to 4-1 down. On the flip side, they rallied to make the last five minutes extremely tense.
But they left it too late to snatch an unlikely point, but City did show that even in the most adverse circumstances they keep playing. It’s not worth anything tangible, but it’s still to their credit.
As we move into the stage of the season where we hope the team maintains a challenge in all four available competitions, there is something to be said for taking a knock at this stage.
It’s true that you learn nothing from never falling, but everything in standing up after you fall. In that regard, this could be City’s greatest lesson of the season.
Mark my little words: The Sky Blues will go on to win the EPL by a nice convincing margin.
Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has covered the EPL for over three decades for a stable of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) newspapers. He supports Tottenham Hotspur.
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