Liverpool ride City storm to reach CL semis
Liverpool withheld a breathtaking first-half display from Manchester City to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League. But the 5-1 aggregate score does not flatter the Reds, they deserved the result, and their place at this stage of the competition.
Few Liverpool fans will have experienced anything as excruciating as the first 45 minutes of their win against Manchester City on Tuesday night.
Liverpool were 3-0 up after the first leg, but City’s goal inside two minutes, and their subsequent first-half performance, ensured the tie was far from over.
The truth is that Pep Guardiola’s side, the Premier League champions elect, were as good as any team has played in Europe this season. Their movement, speed, use of space, technical quality and sheer relentlessness was simply outstanding. That Liverpool overcame that, winning the tie 5-1, is a statement of enormous proportions.
After they were blown away at Anfield last week, City knew they had to come out strong. Guardiola fielded a back three, packing the midfield with numbers and using the extra men to stretch the play as wide as possible.
Leaving themselves so open against such rampant, dangerous opposition was a massive risk, but their start to the game showed how it could work, and how a historic comeback could be possible. Raheem Sterling forced Virgil van Dijk into a mistake and the home side pounced. Sterling was released, he cut the ball back to Jesus and suddenly they were one goal closer.
What followed was wave after wave of City attack. Leroy Sane on the left was electric, gliding inside and jinking out, threatening all the time. Sterling on the other side showed why his omission last week was so puzzling. David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne behind them were as good as you would expect.
The combinations were dizzying. They got round the side and got behind, they won it, held it, and threw men forward. If the ball went out of play they restarted immediately. They always had an extra option, another space to exploit.
Their final touch was missing though. Time and again, Liverpool were set up to block, or intercept or clear, even if at times it required a stroke of luck; Bernardo Silva rattled the inside of the post via the crucilist of flicks from the defending Dejan Lovren, whilst City also had a legitimate goal ruled out for offside.
If either alternate outcome had prevailed, if Bernardo’s shot had found the corner or if the correct decision had been made, then Liverpool could have found themselves two down at the break, with City knowing they only needed a goal to force extra-time.
But Liverpool weathered the storm, and must be given great credit for doing so. For a team that was so heavily criticised earlier in the season for the way it defended, Klopp’s side showed, again, their resoluteness, bravery and spirit when off the ball.
Special praise must be given to their young fullbacks, Trent Alexander-Arnold, the 19-year-old local lad, and Scottish international Andrew Robertson, who five years ago to the day was playing for Queen’s Park in their 2-0 defeat to Annan Athletic in front of a mere 241 people. Both players have their own fairytale stories but delivered again on the big stage, repaying the trust shown in them with imperious defensive performances.
It was unlikely that City could play at the same tempo again after the break. It also didn’t help that Guardiola was sent to the stands for taking his remonstrations with the referee a step too far.
You got the urge that Liverpool were, finally, growing into the game. For the first real time the makeshift midfield of Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got their foot on the ball and were able to make passes they simply weren’t able to earlier due to City’s momental efforts.
You also got the sense that, given their approach, City were too aggressive, too imbalanced, and would leave themselves open, and in the 56th minute, they paid. A Liverpool break resulted in Mohamed Salah lifting the ball into a vacant net, sending the travelling supporters into delirium.
It was Salah’s 39th goal of an extraordinary season, and the one that killed the tie. Liverpool knew that a single away goal would leave City needing to score five. They knew their moment would come. It was just question of who it would fall to and who would grasp it. In Salah, they couldn’t have asked for anyone better.
Roberto Firmino capitalised on a Nicolas Otamendi error to put the tie beyond doubt. In the context of the season, and given how well City had played in the opening 45, this was an unbelievable result. That it was Liverpool’s third win over City since January is a testament to how impressive a team the Reds are.
And yet it’s a team that will continue to be written off. The names on the team sheet – Karius, Milner, Robertson, Alexander-Arnold, Oxlade Chamberlain, Lovren – still don’t strike some as Champions League winning material. But this week shows that the collective is greater than the individual. A Champions League semi-final awaits, but the stage seems right. It fits, and Klopp’s team deserves their place in the final four.