Manchester City and Liverpool’s chief executives had written a joint-letter to supporters before this game urging them to put an end to the bad blood between the clubs. The fans duly obliged but the players had obviously not got the memo.
here was certainly no love lost on the pitch as City and Liverpool went at each other and served up a pre-festive treat in the process that demolished any notion that the resumption of England’s domestic game may prove a rather tame, subdued affair so soon after the conclusion of the World Cup.
This was frenetic, full-blooded clash full of chances and incident and an undercurrent of rancour that occasionally threatened to boil over. Twice Liverpool went behind, twice they came back, but they had no answer when City took the third for a third time shortly before the hour mark, Nathan Ake’s goal enough to secure their passage through to the Carabao Cup quarter-finals at the expense of the defending champions.
After the toxic atmosphere at the Premier League meeting between these sides in October when City alleged that coins were thrown at Pep Guardiola and their team bus attacked and Liverpool condemned sick chants mocking the Hillsborough disaster, the clubs had called for a truce. It was much needed.
City must have thought they would take the game away from Liverpool when Riyad Mahrez scored soon after the restart, cutting inside Andrew Robertson and rifling a shot into the bottom corner. But Liverpool’s response was immediate: Darwin Nunez showing Aymeric Laporte a clean pair of heels to race on to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace and square for Mohamed Salah to score.
Yet Jurgen Klopp’s side struggled to contain Kevin De Bruyne all night and it was from his cross that Ake headed City in front, a lead that would fight furiously to defend.
Any fears this may be a slow burner after the six-week break for the World Cup were scotched within 60 breathless seconds. Erling Haaland was released on goal first but shanked his shot high and wide. After a prolonged absence, even the very best are permitted a loosener. Next Nunez was put through but Aymeric Laporte managed to block before the Liverpool striker could get a clean shot away. It was a frantic start that set the tone for the thriller that would follow – the pace never relenting, the chances coming thick and fast, the entertainment rich. These two just love a good old ding-dong.
City played the more cohesively and looked the slicker, sharper operation but there was always that lingering threat from Liverpool, who kept coming back for more. It was level at the interval but probably instructive that City could have been out of sight yet may also have found themselves behind.
The closest sign of a tournament hangover was probably in the errant finishing of Nunez, who squandered two golden opportunities in the final minutes of the first half. But the Uruguayan put both of those misses behind him to tee up Salah to make it 2-2, moments after Mahrez had given City the lead for the second time within a couple of moments of the restart, and at that point the only thing to do really was sit back and gorge on the unfolding drama.
Klopp will have been encouraged that his team managed to create numerous excellent chances, despite the difficulties they had trying to quell De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan in midfield and an injury list that robbed him of Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino in attack.
But the changes the Liverpool manager made at half-time were notable. This was a baptism of fire for Stefan Bajcetic, making only his second Liverpool start, and when he picked up a booking for a foul on Cole Palmer there was always going to be a risk in sending him out for the second half.
It was a chance Klopp was unprepared to take and so on went Fabinho in an effort to bring a little order.
De Bruyne and Gundogan had both endured dismal World Cup group-stage exits, with Belgium and Germany respectively, but on this evidence they have got over the disappointment quickly, overwhelming Liverpool’s rather lightweight-looking midfield.
De Bruyne set up Haaland for the opening goal, teasing over a cross from the left. Haaland was two yards behind Joe Gomez before the ball came over but, with the Liverpool defender stuck on his heels, City’s No 9 burst in front of him and steered home a precise volley with the studs of his left boot.
With Rico Lewis, City’s promising young right-back, stepping up to midfield, Guardiola’s side felt like they had an extra man in the middle and Liverpool’s first equaliser came against the run of play. Joel Matip strode forward and slipped a lovely pass to James Milner that took out three blue shirts. Milner rolled the ball to Fabio Carvalho, who stroked a first-time finish low into the corner. Milner’s night would not last much longer, the former City midfielder departing with an injury to abuse from the locals.
City continued to attack in waves and Liverpool were indebted to Caoimhín Kelleher. From Mahrez’s flick on, De Bruyne rushed down the right and squared for Gundogan, whose shot was saved. Ake then had a close-range header shut out by the Liverpool goalkeeper. Palmer had earlier got his feet in a tangle when a chance was put on a plate by De Bruyne.
And yet, amazingly, Liverpool could have gone into the break a couple of goals to the good had Nunez not screwed two shots wide from almost identical positions, the first from Gomez’s clipped ball over the top, the second from a free-kick by Robertson.
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