If Liverpool finally wins a 19th English title in May of next year and ends a drought dating back to 1990, encapsulating the entirety of the Premier League era, Sunday might well be remembered as the day that it all came together.
Because a convincing 3-1 home win over Manchester City will have dealt a sporting and psychological blow so heavy that the back-to-back defending champions may not recover from it, never mind that there’s 26 games and a good six months remaining in the season.
The victory separated the teams by nine points, with Liverpool eight points clear at the top of the table and City cast down into fourth place, below the upstart Leicester City and a resurgent Chelsea. And City now has three losses in its first dozen league games, almost as many as the four it suffered in all of last season, and more than the two it had in the campaign prior. Liverpool now has 11 wins and a tie from 12 games, with 28 goals scored and just 10 conceded.
And in that sense, Liverpool may yet get some reward for its scintillating form from last season, when it gained a club-record 97 points – the third-most of any team ever – yet still fell a point short of City. Some just reward perhaps also for the 2013-14 season, when Liverpool’s epic collapse in the home stretch of the season made City the champions.
Because on Sunday, Liverpool showed why this magnificent incarnation of its storied club deserves more prizes than just last year’s Champions League trophy as homage to its excellence.
Sometimes, when the stakes are cranked up as high as the dial will go, an attritional game of soccer ensues. And maybe that can’t always be avoided; it’s human nature to avoid risk. When the downside of losing is higher than the upside of winning, the incentive to play expansive soccer evaporates.
Sunday’s showdown, between the current titans of the Premier League and perhaps the entire sport, was just such a game widely expected to descend into the game’s preeminent managers and tactical thinkers, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, moving chess pieces around.
Looked at one way, Liverpool didn’t really need the win. It was already five points clear of Leicester and six of City. City, meanwhile, knew full well it hadn’t won at Anfield since 2003 and needed to avoid a loss, lest it fall even further behind.
So a mirthless, unambitious tie made a certain amount of sense, in a Game Theory kind of way. That’s what happened the last time this contest was played on Merseyside, a 0-0 stalemate. Conversely, two times ago, Liverpool won 4-3 in a barnburner of a game.
Looked at another way, a nine-point lead over City might be too appealing a prospect for the Reds to resist. Just as a City win would cut Liverpool’s lead down to three points.
Happily, delightfully, blessedly, both teams decided to go for it and bet on themselves and the three points, making for a tantalizing, back-and-forth affair contested by two transcendent sides. It simply isn’t within either team’s understanding of the sport that it can be played defensively or passively, even if their ways of going about attacking are very different – City’s relentless forward pressure versus Liverpool’s blindingly quick attacking jabs.
Liverpool took a commanding early lead with two goals within a quarter of an hour. In just the sixth minute, Fabinho scored his first goal of the season with a sledgehammer of a shot from outside the box.
Then, Trent Alexander-Arnold switched the ball magnificently into space for Andy Robertson, who swerved in a sharp cross for Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian let the ball bounce before heading it past the hapless Claudio Bravo.
And just after halftime, Jordan Henderson whipped over a long cross from the corner flag, headed in at the far post by Sadio Mane to make it 3-0.
But City certainly had chances, although some were denied by referee Michael Oliver, who twice decided that a ball striking Alexander-Arnold’s hand in the box was not, in fact, a penalty. The first time came just before Liverpool’s first goal, perhaps swinging the outcome of the game.
The second came late on, just after Bernardo Silva had finally put City on the scoreboard when he pinged a shot in off the near post.
City’s howls were understandable.
Those weren’t City’s only chances, however. Sergio Aguero had a handful all by himself, yet he still didn’t manage to score his first goal at Anfield in eight games. And City, in the end, can blame the referee or the Video Assistant Referee, but it had the scoring opportunities, and it commanded the second half when Liverpool’s adventurousness on the counter was much diminished.
But the defending champions were simply outcunned and bested by a Liverpool that now has to be considered the presumptive champion, even with two-thirds of the season left to play.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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