Liverpool 3 Manchester City 2: Brendan Rodgers' Reds take giant step to first league title in 24 years after Philippe Coutinho's late strike secures thrilling victory
If Liverpool are to win their first league championship in 24 years next month, and even if they don’t, they will always have this beautiful specimen of a football match to remember their season by.
And what a season it has been and promises to be for Liverpool, having established themselves as the leaders of the Premier League with four games left to play.
They have beaten their most credible rivals in the title race and now have just four wins between them and a historical first Premier League title. What, they might ask, is four games when you have already won ten in a row?
In the emotional post-match huddle that Gerrard convened on the pitch, the Liverpool captain called upon his team-mates to do the same at Norwich on Sunday, where the run-in resumes.
It used to be only Alan Partridge who thought matters of great importance were settled in Norwich, but now the nation’s gaze turns to Carrow Road to see where this improbable pursuit of the title will take Brendan Rodgers’ team next.
What Gerrard did not mention when he pulled his team-mates together was the opponent whom Liverpool face when they next return to Anfield on 27 April. Chelsea’s visit to Anfield is set-up perfectly by this result, even before one considers the other factors: master against apprentice, one unshackled attacking unit against the masters of the bespoke defensive game. This has been a brilliant Premier League season and it is building towards one hell of a finish.
Rodgers’ team took a thrilling path to victory, although not always as their manager would have preferred it. They tore into Manchester City at the start and established a two-goal lead within 26 minutes – and quite frankly, it could have been more. Then in City’s best period, the 20 minutes after the break when James Milner’s introduction changed the game, David Silva scored, City equalised and Liverpool were obliged to win it all over again.
They did so with a glorious goal from Philippe Coutinho, taken first time on his right foot after another error from Vincent Kompany had presented him with the ball. By then Liverpool were no longer the dominant team and goalscoring chances were much thinner on the ground but then this in this title race, the most volatile in recent memory, Liverpool are the team taking their opportunities.
It was not without the controversial refereeing decisions that feel inevitable when there is so much at stake. Jordan Henderson was sent off in injury-time at the end of the game when a loose touch tempted him to lunge with his studs raised at Samir Nasri and, rolling over the ball and into the opponent, he paid the price. That was “a bit harsh” Rodgers said, his only complaint about Mark Clattenburg.
Manuel Pellegrini had more issues to raise with the referee but even he did not seek to blame Clattenburg. Chief among his complaints was a handball against Martin Skrtel, the scorer of Liverpool’s second goal, in the second half that did not yield a penalty for City. Pellegrini declined the opportunity to talk about Suarez although he might have wondered how the striker escaped a second booking; not least for a blatant dive designed to incriminate Martin Demichelis.
Suarez could argue that his original booking, the first of the game, and coming in the fifth minute, was somewhat disproportionate. In fact, one could spend the rest of the day arguing over the details, but the big picture was another compelling game. Liverpool’s momentum carried them forward, City’s edge was dulled by the demands of another long season. They fought each other to a standstill at times.
Two days ahead of the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough, there were flowers presented by City beforehand and a minute’s silence in which the only sounds were the whirring of photographers’ camera shutters and the distant clatter of a police helicopter. It was an emphatic start from Liverpool just moments later and within 20 minutes they were a goal up. City, on the other hand, were a big man down.
That was Yaya Toure, who came off on 19 minutes having landed awkwardly after hitting a shot. His was a huge absence for City who replaced him with Javi Garcia and then conceded again within six minutes.
Raheem Sterling’s goal was symbolic of his composure and confidence and, although he faded in the second half, before the break he was the best player on the pitch. His finish was the work of a much more experienced footballer. Put simply, while the City defence went one way, he went the other and slotted the ball into an empty goal.
In the move that led to the goal it was a header won by Coutinho that prised possession away from City and it was a sign of his commitment that the young Brazilian very nearly finished off the move. He was only denied that privilege by the precocity of Sterling’s finish.
In the interim, Suarez did good work to create the chance, starting with his back to the goal, turning and slipping the ball through to Sterling. The young winger had Joe Hart and Kompany between him and the goal and stopped, put the ball on his left foot, waited until the pair had committed, turned back to his right and rolled the ball into the goal as, to his right, Coutinho asked for the pass.
Kompany was also at fault for the second from Skrtel, who pulled away from him at a corner after a fine save from Hart denied Gerrard. The Liverpool captain’s corner was glanced off the top of Skrtel’s head with Kompany having failed to take responsibility. After that, City came back into the game and had chances to score at the end of the first half with Mamadou Sakho, in particular, fortunate that Clattenburg was not less forgiving on a challenge of his on Edin Dzeko.
Milner made Silva’s goal as City pulled one back, exchanging passes with Fernandinho and driving down the right to cross into the area for the playmaker to score on 57 minutes. Five minutes later they were level, when City were afforded too much time in the area and Silva’s shot ricocheted off Glen Johnson and then Simon Mignolet before going in. Silva should have scored City's third just moments before Coutinho got the winner.
“We’ve won nothing yet,” Gerrard said afterwards. True, of course, although they have won pole position in this absorbing race which is quite enough for now.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet 7; Johnson 7, Skrtel 7, Sakho 7, Flanagan 6; Coutinho 8 (Moses, 89), Gerrard 8, Henderson 7; Sterling 8 (Lucas, 90), Sturridge 4 (Allen 5, 65), Suarez 7.
Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Toure, Agger, Aspas.
Manchester City (4-1-3-2): Hart 6; Zabaleta 6, Kompany 4, Demichelis 6, Clichy 6; Fernandinho 6; Navas 5 (Milner 8, 50), Toure 6 (Garcia 6, 19), Nasri 6; Silva 8, Dzeko 6 (Aguero 6, 68).
Substitutes not used: Pantilimon (gk), Lescott, Negredo, Kolarov.
Booked: Liverpool Suarez Manchester City Garcia, Fernandinho, Zabaleta
Sent off: Henderson
Match rating: 9
Belfast Telegraph Digital