By Simon Evans
LIVERPOOL, England (Reuters) – There is still more than six months of the Premier League season left, with 26 games and no doubt many plot twists ahead, but Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Manchester City on Sunday had the feel of a changing of the guard at the pinnacle of English football.
It was not so much the maths, though Liverpool’s nine-point advantage over defending champions City, with a point less over Leicester City and Chelsea, is a significant gap, especially as Juergen Klopp’s side have lost one league game in 18 months.
But it was the manner of Liverpool’s victory at Anfield which suggested that the fans’ nearly 30-year wait for a domestic league title may be coming to a close.
City were by no means poor, and played their part in an entertaining encounter, but Liverpool were better in every department.
Klopp’s side were sharper in attack, where Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane both found the target, more solid at the back and in the midfield were faster, stronger, harder and more incisive, as always helped by their rampaging full-backs.
Liverpool are European champions after overpowering teams of the calibre of Barcelona, bullying them physically, ripping them apart with speedy bursts down the flanks from Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson and through ruthless finishing.
City, though, have won the past two Premier League titles thanks to their technical brilliance and mastery of possession football which they executed with relentless consistency.
However, this season Liverpool have matched that level of consistency, unbeaten and with 11 wins from 12, they arrived at this game with the only question being whether they could cope with the unique challenge of Pep Guardiola’s City machine.
The only conclusion after 90 minutes of high quality football was that Liverpool have no weak spots. It is hard to think of any team in the world who would enter the intimidating atmosphere of Anfield confident of leaving with a win.
City, in contrast, have had a major weakness exposed due to injuries and made an unfathomable mistake in the transfer market by not replacing former captain Vincent Kompany when he left the club in the close-season and that has come back to bite them.
City inexplicably given their huge resources, went into this season with just three established central defenders — John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and Aymeric Laporte.
Given that Laporte has been sidelined by injury since August and Otamendi’s form has been haphazard at best, City went to Anfield with midfielder Fernandinho filling in alongside Stones.
Liverpool in contrast were able to replace Virgil van Dijk’s injured defensive partner Joel Matip with the experienced Croatian Dejan Lovren and still had England international Joe Gomez in reserve on the bench.
There was no glaring error from City’s defenders but there was an air of vulnerability about them throughout the game and the sense of certainty that Liverpool would punish Guardiola’s back line for any slip-up.
Last season, City delivered a tactically mature and disciplined performance in a goalless draw at Anfield but, as Guardiola conceded, this game was more similar to the 2018 Champions League quarter-final, where City were blown apart after going two goals down in the opening 20 minutes.
“If you give them an inch, they will take that and score goals,” said City’s Portuguese midfielder Bernardo Silva, who grabbed their late consolation goal.
“That’s what happens. You can play better than Liverpool and be 2-0 or 3-0 behind. They are maybe the best team in the world with their counter-attack, second balls and set pieces.”
City will recover from this loss, surely will strengthen their defence in the January transfer window and it would be a foolish pundit who writes them off.
“It’s still November and we still have games to play. We’re not in an ideal position – we don’t want to lose games – and we have to improve,” said Silva. “We were in this position last season. We’ll never give up.”
Liverpool’s protestations that this game decided nothing were inevitable but there was no hiding the desire Klopp has to deliver that long absent league title.
“Nine points, you cannot imagine that something like this happens,” said the German. “But it’s not important because who wants to be first in early November? We want to be first in May.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ken Ferris)