Last week, I wrote about the importance of Liverpool’s next two matches, against Crystal Palace in the Premier League and Manchester City in the Champions League. Both represented huge tests for the Reds, greatly influencing their hopes of a top four finish and a place in the semi-finals of the continental competition they regard as their own.
Yet Liverpool came through both games brilliantly, scraping a late 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace which rewarded their persistence and attitude than high quality football.
However, Jurgen Klopp’s side combined all three against Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s champions-elect were blown away in the first half, as they again succumbed to the team who are fast becoming their kryptonite, particularly at Anfield.
Liverpool’s high-octane, passionate and exhilarating fanbase (albeit soured by the acts of a minority outside Anfield to Manchester City’s team bus) translated through to their football. Liverpool’s aggression, directness and confidence going forward were Klopp trademarks, and they match up to Guardiola’s possession style better than any other manager in world football.
Yet, after racing into a 3-0 lead in the first half, Liverpool demonstrated another facet of their team – their refined defence. All of the improvement in Liverpool’s back four, helped especially by new signings Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson, was on display in the second half against City.
In fact, the entire team were wonderfully organised and resolute as City stuck to their methods and tried in vain to find a way through the red wall blocking their path.
Desperate for an away goal that would not come, City ended the match without even a shot on target, such was the masterclass put on by the Reds at both ends of the pitch. In his post-match interview, Klopp felt his team dropped too deep in the second half, and perhaps Liverpool were feeling the exertions of the first 45 minutes, both physically and emotionally.
Nevertheless, the Reds summoned enough intensity and concentration to hold off the best team in England and ensure that they would take a commanding lead to the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday.
Liverpool have options for the second leg with the three-goal insurance now in their pocket. Klopp knows no other way than to attack, but they have the option also of sitting back and counter-attacking, as City have to score at least three times to only ensure extra-time.
Should Liverpool score just once, then City will need to score five, so the message should be clear for the Liverpool players at the Etihad next week.
Liverpool worked hard last season to give themselves a chance of resurrecting European nights akin to Wednesday. Reaching the top four for only the second time in eight years in 2017 allowed Klopp’s Liverpool to create their own special moments in the Champions League to sit alongside the countless memories the club has in their proud European history. Liverpool certainly have plenty to choose from, both from the modern era under Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez and when the Reds claimed four European Cups in the 1970s and early 80s.
Plus, playing in the Champions League and making an impact in the latter stages of the competition only improves Liverpool’s standing as they seek to return to the world’s elite on a consistent basis. Their chances of signing top players will only increase, although Klopp is only interested in players that are fully committed to the Liverpool cause, instead of seeing the club as a stepping stone to greater things.
Klopp and Liverpool want those things to happen at Anfield instead once again.
Therefore, the victory against Palace was just as important as the special midweek triumph against City. Liverpool are now ten points clear of Chelsea – albeit having played a game more – and are closing in on successive top four finishes for the first time since 2009.
The Reds are slowly but surely making their way back to the top, playing football that will have certain sets of rival fans looking longingly at the red half of Merseyside.
The performance levels against Palace were not what they were against City, which only adds to the significance of victory in the former. However, on Wednesday night, every Liverpool player stood up to be counted, producing fantastic performances.
Yet one transcended even the rest, and perhaps this was the night that Trent Alexander-Arnold truly announced himself to the world as a Liverpool star in the making.
After all the difficulty the youngster had endured in recent weeks against Manchester City and Crystal Palace, to remain so composed and assured against one of the best wingers in Europe in Leroy Sane was truly special indeed.
Near the end of the match, Alexander-Arnold gestured positively to those around him, urging the team to hold onto their incredible advantage, which not only emphasised his growing confidence and evident passion, but also his leadership skills. He is only 19, but has undoubtedly proved that great things are ahead for him, to Liverpool’s benefit.
So, a great week for Liverpool then, to put it mildly. Keeping their momentum going against Everton should be the next target.
The importance of the latest Merseyside Derby pales in comparison to the second leg against City however, especially following Liverpool’s victory against Palace and healthy points advantage over Chelsea in the race for the top four.
No one is foolish enough to write off Manchester City, who have the capability to easily score numerous goals at the Etihad, as Liverpool discovered in the league this season.
Yet after their efforts in the last week, Liverpool could not have put themselves in a better position to reach both the top four in the Premier League and the Champions League semi-finals.