Manchester City beat Liverpool to pull to within four points of the Reds in the Premier League title race and end the visitors’ unbeaten run.
Liverpool hadn’t lost a Premier League game all season, but Leroy Sane’s second-half winner was enough to end the last remaining invincible streak in the English top flight.
Sergio Aguero had put City in front despite Liverpool’s impressive start and they took that into the break.
But when Roberto Firmino equalised this top-of-the-table clash seemed up in the air once more. Sane’s brilliant winner settled the fixture but only served to muddy the championship picture, but what did we learn?
Here are five things…..
1. Man City target Lovren with some success
Perhaps Manchester City weren’t necessarily targeting Dejan Lovren but avoiding Virgil van Dijk?
Either way, the effect was the same.
Aguero’s Touch Map so far is interesting. He won’t be the only striker this season to avoid going near left sided CB Van Dijk! He’s very much ‘playing on’ Lovren. pic.twitter.com/ZhvidhLE5O
— Adrian Clarke (@adrianjclarke) January 3, 2019
As noted by the Premier League’s Adrian Clarke on this touch map, it was obvious that Aguero was lurking on the shoulder of the inconsistent Lovren rather than trying to match up against the imperious Dutchman.
The result, eventually, was the half-yard of space he needed to drive home a left-footed half-volley at the near post and open the scoring.
Margins are often slim in this game but the difference between being able to get across the Croat and Van Dijk in that situation was enough for Aguero to jam the opener past Alisson and give City a lead their overall performance had probably not deserved.
Aguero would have got a second later in the game after besting Lovren, only for Alisson to make an impressive save. Bernardo Silva also robbed Lovren late in the 90th minute when the hosts should have put the result beyond doubt.
It would be harsh to say that Lovren cost Liverpool this game but he was clearly their weak spot and City attempted to make the most of that.
2. Shaqiri’s good form not enough to keep his place
There had always been the feeling that Xherdan Shaqiri, for all his good form, was still considered the odd man out of Liverpool’s explosive attack.
Today proved it.
With a potential title on the line, one of the league’s most in-form offensive players was forced to make do with a spot on the bench as Jurgne Klopp stuck with a 4-3-3 and what the Spanish might call his ‘gala XI’.
It meant Sadio Mane, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino as a front three, which was as dangerous a combination as ever but not enough to get on the scoresheet against City – even if they came within millimetres of doing so.
Eventually Klopp called for the Swiss as City took control in the second half but it was too late to make the desired impact.
3. The margins that define the Premier League are narrow…
….millimetres in fact.
Manchester City’s poor start should have been punished in rather unorthodox fashion when Stones’ clearance clattered into Ederson and the ball looped over his head – almost in slow motion – and over the goal line.
That a tiny portion of the ball hung over the line and not fully past it was nothing but dumb luck, but it is those tiny little moments that so often prove crucial come May.
Had Riyad Mahrez not ballooned over the crossbar earlier this season then things would be even closer but now the title race is narrowing and the margin for error is minuscule. What would Liverpool have given for Mo Salah to put his whole body into that bouncing ball to make sure it hit the net, giving them a deserved lead away from home against their biggest rivals for the title?
We’ll never know. But we do know how close they came: 11mm, according to the Premier League’s official measurement.
4. Klopp’s gamble pays off
City mightn’t have deserved their lead especially but they came out in the second half and thoroughly best Liverpool with intense pressing and some dangerous attacking play.
To try and wrest back control of the fixture, Klopp brought Fabinho on to sit deep in midfield, offering a more conservative option than the all-action Milner. Crucially, though, this allowed both full-backs to bomb on and it would be they who would combine so well for the Reds’ equaliser.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, freed from his shackles, caused Leroy Sane a lot more problems after the break than he had before it and that eventually showed itself in a vital moment as the England full-back faked a cross, turned inside Sane and then drifted a cross to the far post. Danilo misjudged the ball but Andrew Robertson didn’t, galloping on from left-back to cushion a pass across the face of goal and into the path of a stooping Roberto Firmino, who headed home from a yard.
Alexander-Arnold and Robertson hooking up in such an attacking position wasn’t something that looked at all on the cards in the first half despite their better start. Fabinho’s introduction made it possible.
5. City win it late to drag themselves within reach
Leroy Sane should have done much better for the Liverpool equaliser but all was forgiven when he threaded the eye of the needle to score Man City’s winner.
The German broke away at high speed, eating up ground as City raided on the counter-attack in a period of Liverpool pressure.
Sane’s finish was so close to not scoring that even after hitting the inside of the post it wasn’t clear where the ball would go, but it bounced into the netting on the opposite side of the goal to send the Etihad wild and the Sky Blue half of Manchester flying up the Premier League table.
City are now just four points off Liverpool with 17 games remaining. Tottenham are only a couple of points behind them in third. We have a title race, though who knows how long that will last. All we know is that City absolutely had to win today and they got it done.