Liverpool underscored their title credentials on Sunday at Anfield, downing Manchester City 3-2 in an electric game behind a late strike from Philippe Coutinho. The result means that Liverpool control their own destiny, and on the evidence, look to be on the way to winning their first top-flight title since 1990.
Coutinho’s goal, a devastating half-volley past a helpless Joe Hart with ten minutes to play, punctuated a day shadowed by the grief that continues to surround this club. The Hillsborough disaster occurred 25 years ago this Tuesday and all weekend, the league has been marking the occasion by moving kickoffs back seven minutes in remembrance. Here, Anfield marked the day with wreaths, tributes, silence — and then an almighty, cathartic roar. The volume of Anfield and the power the fans brought to bear on Sunday cannot be understated: this was the loudest stadium I have been in in some 15 years. The passion — and the tension here — was otherwordly.
Article continues below ...
“I am sure it sounded loud on TV, but on pitchside it was incredible,” said Brendan Rodgers after the game. “The memories of Hillsborough are with us with us every day. It it’s an inspiration, it doesn’t hold us back. We’ll remember them on Tuesday as I said, but today was about creating new memories.”
Their team fed on the emotion and the volume of the crowd, springing out of the traps from the kickoff. Liverpool have been masters of running the blitz against the best teams, scoring early here against Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham, and they pulled the trick on City, with Raheem Sterling firing home after six minutes with a perfectly composed finish. Luis Suarez, now the Premier League’s assist leader, started the play by muscling Gael Clichy off a ball in midfield and firing a diagonal pass up to Sterling, who had Vincent Kompany and Hart to beat. With an assurance that belies his age, Sterling juked left and then went right, stepping into the space he had created and firing home in front of a rapturous Kop end.
Manchester City had few answers for Liverpool’s diamond, with Suarez, Sterling and Daniel Sturridge’s movement impossible for the slower and more orthodox Kompany and Martin Demichelis to match. Liverpool do the same thing on every play — they run, they gun, and when the player on the flank gets the ball, the man furthest left makes the run through the back line. But knowing what a team is going to do doesn’t mean you can stop it. City couldn’t.
Things got worse for the Citizens 18 minutes in when Yaya Toure took a wild lash at the ball, sending it into the Anfield Road end — and hurting his knee in the process. He hobbled off to be replaced by Javi Garcia, an experienced midfielder who is also showing his age, and with that, Liverpool sensed they could go for the throat. Seven minutes later, they drew blood.
First, Steven Gerrard forced Hart into an astonishing reflex save with a point-blank header off a corner. It should have been a goal, but Gerrard picked the ball up, walked to the other flag and then punted back in a ball that Martin Skrtel met on the edge of the box. With a deft nod over his right shoulder, he put the ball past a despairing Hart to the far post, and with that, City seemed sunk.
They were not. Late in the half, City fought back with two fine chances that Liverpool were lucky to fight away. First, Jesus Navas began to find purchase out wide against the young Jon Flanagan, sending in a cross well met by David Silva that was deflected just wide of Simon Mignolet’s far post. Then, on the ensuing corner, Sterling came up the hero, heading a ball off the line in a scrum from Silva’s corner. Navas would strike again, taking Flanagan on late in the half and beating him, setting up an acrobatic strike by Fernandinho that Mignolet did well to palm away.
But after the break, City threw on James Milner for Navas and slowly the Citizens clawed their way back. Looking far more assured, they started to rattle the Reds, with Milner victimizing Flanagan. He and Silva would run a delicious one-two just before the hour mark and at last Liverpool’s resistance crumbled. That set up a ten-minute whirlwind in which it seemed all the Reds’ hopes would be dashed.
City would score again five minutes later when Gael Clichy skipped around a rooted Liverpool back line and fed Samir Nasri near the spot. Nasri touched the ball back to his left to Silva, and the midfielder cannoned a shot that Glen Johnson redirected into his own net. And with that, we were level again.
Reeling, Liverpool were forced to remove Sturridge injured — and it looked as though their dreams were to be dashed. Nasri and Silva were churning through their back line and City still had a card to play in Sergio Aguero, making his return from injury.
But then, on a routine throw-in, City made their mistake. Kompany, looking to clear the ball, whiffed on his kick and Coutinho nipped in and on to the ball. With a half volley, he ruffled the net at the far post – and Anfield exploded.
There was late drama as ref Mark Clattenburg missed a clear penalty when Skrtel used his hand to punch away a cross late. Manager Manuel Pellegrini admitted it that it did not cost City the game – but said it should have been given.
“We played very well the second half, and we have clear chances, and football is made from good things and mistakes,” said Pellegrini. “We made a mistake. But there was a clear penalty from Skrtel, and I don’t know to say about that.”
Liverpool still have one major test left: they must play Chelsea in a fortnight. Jose Mourinho has pointedly said his Blues will have a “discussion” about the title with these Reds. And they will have to play without Jordan Henderson, who was sent off late for a lunge on Nasri.
But there is no mistaking the feeling that permeates this ground, and this city. It feels like destiny for Liverpool.