Liverpool and Manchester City were expected to put on the show of the Champions League quarter-final round, and after the first leg Liverpool have certainly upheld their end of the bargain. They had a jaw-dropping first half that featured three goals as they romped their way to a surprise 3-0 win over City at Anfield on Wednesday, taking a big early foothold in this tie.
In the opening minutes of the match, it looked like Manchester City were in full control. They’d effectively blunted Liverpool’s early efforts to race out and score, and were in fairly good control of the early possession, building up play efficiently and looking likely to score.
Then Mohamed Salah happened.
The leading scorer in the Premier League this season, Salah helped spring a quick-trigger counter attack, receiving a long pass up the right wing and going on a dizzying run to try and set up a shot for Roberto Firmino. Firmino’s shot was well saved by Ederson, but Salah had followed up his run — something he’s gone from very poor at doing consistently to almost always doing it perfectly over the past year — and hammered home the rebound to give Liverpool the lead just 12 minutes into the match.
With the Anfield crowd exploding into rapturous cheers and songs, Manchester City looked a little shaken, taking time to try and recenter themselves. That gave Liverpool several opportunities to get forward again, and it wasn’t long before a loose ball found Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain lurking near the top of City’s penalty area. One touch put the ball where the midfielder wanted it, and one cannon strike of a shot later it was 2-0 to Liverpool in the 20th minute.
City actually responded well, but it was clear they weren’t quite at their best at that point. Liverpool’s early strikes seemed to get to them, and City’s efforts to get forward and threaten Liverpool’s sometimes-shaky defense were often blunted by their own players being a beat or a step off from one another, instead of the well-orchestrated machine City’s attack usually is. That helped lead to some sloppiness and desperation in defense, giving Liverpool a free kick at the half hour mark that rattled around a bit before falling to Sadio Mane to knock home.
It was a shocking opening half hour of the match, and while Liverpool wouldn’t score again in the first half, they certainly had chances to threaten at scoring a fourth. City had the possession advantage, but in terms of pure effectiveness they weren’t within miles of Liverpool in the first half, perhaps best exemplified by the fact they didn’t manage a single shot on target in the first half out of the three they took, while Liverpool managed four on frame and scored on three of them.
The second half saw City come out a little stronger, with a tactical shift coming out of the half and a substitution just 10 minutes in, giving them a bit more stability and forward thrust that left Liverpool looking a little uneasy. An injury to Mohamed Salah gave them the chance to bring on an extra midfielder in Giorginio Wijnaldum, but City were utterly dominating possession and looking much better than in the first half.
The second half was a little tamer from Liverpool, with City dominating the ball and getting more of the better scoring chances. In fact, they got the ball in the back of the net in the 84th minute, but it was called off thanks to Leroy Sane being offside when he received the ball before setting up Gabriel Jesus.
Manchester City wouldn’t be able to find the back of the net before the final whistle blew despite several furious attacking attempts in the closing minutes, with Liverpool managing to frustrate their constant pressure in the final third. The result gives Liverpool a big advantage heading into the second leg at the Etihad Stadium — but the sheer amount of talent on both teams means that there’s still plenty of meaningful football to be played before we know which English team is heading to the semi-final round of the Champions League.
Liverpool: Loris Karius; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dejan Lovren, Virgil Van Djik, Andy Robertson; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Alberto Moreno 85’), Jordan Henderson, James Milner; Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino (Dominic Solanke 70’), Mohamed Salah (Giorginio Wijnaldum 53’)
Goals: Salah (12’), Oxlade-Chamberlain (20’), Salah (31’)
Manchester City: Ederson; Kyle Walker, Nicolas Otamendi, Vincent Kompany, Aymeric Laporte; Ilkay Gundogan (Raheem Sterling 57’), Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne; David Silva, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane
Three things we saw
Liverpool’s style may be Manchester City’s kryptonite
Manchester City is an elite team, one of the best in Europe. They can play at an incredibly high level against so many styles of play. Bunker and counter? They can beat it. Pass-heavy control game? They can beat it. Lock-down, physical frustration football? They can beat it.
But then they play Liverpool, and things get weird.
Yes, City beat Liverpool, 5-0, at the start of the season, but that was a Liverpool side still very much settling in after a few big changes in the summer, especially in attack. This current iteration of Liverpool is much different, bringing a high-pace, smashmouth attacking style coming from all angles that latches onto the tiniest mistakes and punishes them ruthlessly. For whatever reason, City just don’t seem to have a truly effective answer for it and get a bit confused and scattered almost every time Liverpool surge forward, which was on display in their 4-3 loss at Anfield in January, and especially apparent in the first half when Liverpool roared out to a 3-0 lead in the first 31 minutes.
In fact, Liverpool’s ability to get to City in ways that other teams can’t manage is seen in one simple statistic: twice this season, Liverpool have scored three goals against Manchester City in a single half of football. No other team has scored three goals in a full game against them, and only a handful have even managed to score twice. And Liverpool did it without allowing a single shot on target all game long.
Now, Pep Guardiola is a brilliant tactician, and he’s in charge of one of the most talented teams in the world. They’ll find some kind of adjustments to improve themselves — the question is what will they be? Jurgen Klopp is a great tactician himself, so it will be interesting to see how each team counters each other in the second leg in Manchester. That will be the absolute must-watch match in the return legs of the quarter-final round.
Liverpool got a bit too passive in the second half
Instead of potentially going for the proverbial kill in the second half, Liverpool started playing a little more reactively, preferring to try and preserve their lead rather than extend it. That’s a risky proposition against a team with as much firepower as City have, and there were more than a few nervy moments for the Reds’ defense, especially after the ever-present attacking outlet of Mohamed Salah had to leave the match injured.
Yes, it mostly worked out for Liverpool. They’re going into the second leg at the Etihad with a lead, but the risk factor was sky-high, especially after they nearly lost a three-goal lead against City in January in a match that ended 4-3 after two late goals by City. Beyond that, another goal or two would have made fans much more confident heading into the second leg, because a three-goal lead might not be enough.
This tie is far from over
Despite Liverpool’s big lead, they’re far from being a lock for the semifinal round. The one team to out-score them in the EPL this season is Manchester City, and they’ve scored 51 of their 88 league goals at home in the Etihad Stadium. Liverpool are effective at scoring anywhere — 37 of their 75 league goals were on the road — but they need to make sure to be at their absolute best and get a couple of early goals in the second leg if they want to make sure they win this tie.
There’s no denying that 3-0 is a great score for Liverpool going into the second leg, with their clean sheet being the biggest factor going in their favor. But they can’t afford to sit on their laurels now — Manchester City are just too good and too dangerous to really feel like the job is done after one game and three goals.