WATCHING it back. Watching it back. Overwhelmed and overwhelming. Ninety tough, tough minutes. Even knowing the end, the twists and turns take your breath away.
What a game of football. What a joy to be alive. Manchester City and Liverpool duked it out at the Etihad yesterday and for the third time this season the Etihad was the setting for a defining game of the season. Manchester City have taken two points from those games when they could argue they deserved all nine. It’s the striking thing about their campaign — City should have beaten Chelsea which may well have halted their momentum. They failed. They deserved to be out of sight against Tottenham but they were pulled back. They could easily have taken all three points this evening against Liverpool but the points were deservedly shared. Across the course of the campaign the Etihad has been the place to be at. Which makes the empty seats all the stranger — it was always likely to be another spectacular occasion. And it was.
It was played with a tempo and urgency which up to this season was a rarity but has come to define the games between the top six. Yet this could well have been the quickest and hardest to date — the damage it did to its players, constantly being asked to do one more shuttle, one more sprint. It left Yaya Toure with little option but to submit around the hour mark, bleary eyed, a man who had no more to give, a colossus eroded to dust. The price of entry to games like this now more than he can manage. He isn’t the first casualty of these games — Michael Carrick was given the big hook at Old Trafford when Liverpool went there earlier in the season. These are good players, players who have touched the sky and who can think their way through most normal games.
These aren’t normal games. This wasn’t a normal game.
Like all the great games it ebbed and flowed. City start on top in the pouring rain, getting to grips with the game first, but Liverpool getting to grips with the weather helped them haul themselves back into it. Liverpool started the half jabbing just to keep City at arms length but they ended it swinging, having forced their way on top. Emre Can was integral to that, sliding around like a puppy on a wet and windy walk. He revelled in the challenge that the game became, wanted to win his battles and show no fear resulting in him bounding back to his feet possibly saving Toure from a red card when he lost control. The Reds should have had a couple of penalties and a goal by the break. Simultaneously Liverpool could have gone in behind, down to 10 and have given a penalty away themselves.
After the break, after James Milner converted the most Protestant of penalties, Liverpool were in the box seat against a Manchester City side coming off the back of a trip to Monaco. A case of two points dropped from that position? That sort of shout seems churlish. And yet.
That’s the thing about games like this. They don’t give themselves over easily to could haves and should haves. The coulds and shoulds rebound back on you. Throughout the second half Liverpool couldshould have made it 0-2 and 1-2; Liverpool couldshould have found themselves 2-1 or 3-1 behind. The chances didn’t stop falling to either side, the decisions the referee had to make at 100 mph didn’t stop being required. As an aside, imagine refereeing that game, Michael Oliver left pulling for tugs; imagine making high-profile decisions when your lungs are on fire, and these sides won’t stop sprinting, passing, attacking, competing. Oh for a quiet five as the ref, oh for a quiet five as a supporter, heart racing. Football that elicits black spots in front of your eyes, bruised knees all round when Adam Lallana failed to connect in front of goal.
Both managers appeared to be pleased with their players and so they should have been. Their players played their football with full commitment. No backward steps on show. The question couldshould be whether that is always the right type of football. I’m of the view that it is but that doesn’t mean me and they are correct. Both sides have weaknesses that will surely be addressed but there isn’t a huge amount of interest in correcting them with shape and approach from either manager. Both put their team on a tightrope.
As a positive Sadio Mane and Raheem Sterling showed what players of their type can bring to a football team even if both had questionable end product on the day. Liverpool need at least one more of that type and have a front three where if goals pay the rent only Mane can be said to do his share. For me, Philippe Coutinho remains structurally more of an issue than Roberto Firmino in this, but I could be wrong. However, if Leroy Sane and Coutinho both struggled as left-sided forwards I would argue that one was very well marshalled by Nathaniel Clyne whereas the other failed again to make the contribution expected apart from when he dropped deeper and picked the ball up with space to carry it into. The issue that Coutinho has is that he’s not really perfected a 6.5/10 90-minute performance in that position whereas both the players next to him can be alright and contribute. They are both attackers, Coutinho an attacking midfielder.
And yet. In a game that confounds Coutinho plays the Liverpudlian ball of the match to release Firmino (for a chance he should do better with — told you I might be wrong) and a contender for ball of the match full stop up against Kevin De Bruyne.
And yet, and yet. And yet these aren’t normal games. They are glorious games, the games that you should remember for years to come and yet whether or not this is the case for the Reds will be defined by what happens next for the rest of this season and going into next. For Liverpool whether or not they finish where they deserve — second or third — will be defined by the mundane from this point, by the normal. These games, these abnormalities are done and their record within them is marvellous. They have the minimum points they deserve from those 10 games — easier to argue they deserve more than less.
We need to remember and cherish these occasions. That means beating Bournemouth after the derby and then going to Stoke and getting something and doing the business from there till the end of May. Cherishing these occasions means them leading to more of them, to Champions League football back at Anfield, to more good players coming to play for this manager in this environment. These aren’t just football matches, they are adverts, for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. As players, come and do this. As supporters, come and adore them.
Not the Kings of Europe. Not yet. But Liverpool need to put themselves in the position to have the chance to become the Kings Of Europe. They genuinely deserve that chance.
Up the and yet Reds. Cherish them. May they keep making it a joy to be alive, may they have the chance to do that even more regularly next season.
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