What does it take to wound a king?
The Premier League spent 22-and-a-half games trying to find out. Some clubs had hinted at answers. A few had come agonizingly close to finding them. And then finally, at a blustery, frigid Anfield on Sunday, in 10 blistering minutes, the answer arrived.
It arrived courtesy of Liverpool – spirited, intense, fearless Liverpool, perhaps the only team that could have found it. The Reds stunned Manchester City, breaking a 1-1 second-half deadlock with two goals in three minutes, and then a fourth from 40 yards out, to deal the Premier League leaders their first loss of the season.
It ended 4-3, and a late City comeback – a bid to hold off mortality – fell just short. It was a reminder of the Citizens’ brilliance. A reminder of the size of the task. A reminder of how much it would take to beat them. A reminder of how much it had taken – of how special Liverpool’s performance had been.
“We deserved to win,” Jurgen Klopp told NBC afterward. “But they deserved [for it to be] close. Two fantastic football teams mixed their skills with attitude, made a nice little stew of it, and that’s what you saw. I loved it.”
Klopp’s side wasn’t flawless. It faltered after taking an early lead, and failed to fully ensnare City’s threat. But that came with the territory. Liverpool played with courage, the likes of which no other Premier League team had mustered against the soon-to-be champions. It sought not to minimize its own mistakes, but to maximize City’s. And to capitalize on them.
That’s what Roberto Firmino did just before the hour mark. Liverpool’s probing finally unearthed an error. John Stones took a poor angle to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s through-ball. The Brazilian striker bullied him off the ball, and dinked a chip in off the far post. Anfield’s collective ear drums burst.
First-half sparring had ended even. Oxlade-Chamberlain was the surprise protagonist for Liverpool. He drove from midfield toward the right side of the box, and snuck a shot post Ederson at the goalkeeper’s far post.
But just before halftime, Leroy Sane pegged the hosts back. He took a wonderful cross-field ball from Kyle Walker on his chest, evading an overly-eager Joe Gomez in the process. He then jinked inside and out, and fired a rocket past Loris Karius.
Gomez’s mistake, in a way, was a natural side-effect of Liverpool’s aggressiveness – and thus a forgivable one. So many Premier League teams have stood off City. Liverpool refused to comply with the trend. It pressed and counterpressed, as Klopp sides always do. It got tight to the ball at almost every opportunity. “He doesn’t accept half-heartedness,” Oxlade-Chamberlain said of his manager.
The Reds often didn’t try to play through the City press. They instead skipped a line. Rather than try to win battles on the ball, they opted to fight them off the ball. They raced to second balls and loose balls. And they emerged from at least half of the battles victorious.
That wasn’t enough to mute City’s booming attack. It was, though, enough to make the visitors flinch first in the second half. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum converged on Kevin De Bruyne to turn a 50-50 challenge into a 67-33. They won it, and hit City on the break for 2-1.
Then, two minutes later, and a minute after he had clipped the outside of the post, Sadio Mane made it 3-1:
Until Sunday, it was unclear whether mistakes of this ilk were hidden beneath City’s armor. Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones had, seemingly, almost eradicated them from their games. But perhaps nobody had spent enough time poking at the armor. Perhaps nobody had the ability to poke those holes. Liverpool had the ability, spent the time, and the armor cracked.
And several minutes later, City capitulated. Ederson lost focus after charging off his line for a through-ball. Mohamed Salah punished him.
Bernardo Silva, in off the bench for a frustrated Raheem Sterling, pulled a goal back for the visitors on 84 minutes. In the first of four-plus minutes of added time, Ilkay Gundogan sent Liverpool nerves into overdrive.
But football, on this day, was just. Liverpool’s bravery, passion and execution deserved three points. It deserved these three points, three monumental ones that disproved City’s imperviousness.
The king hasn’t been dethroned. Manchester City is still 15 points clear atop the Premier League. It will still have a crown come May. But Arsenal’s Invincibles can take a deep breath. Because Man City no longer is.
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