Liverpool signed off 2016 with a massive 1-0 victory against Man City to aid their title aspirations and dent Pep Guardiola’s
It had been billed as an attacking exhibition; the fireworks to precede the big bangs to follow on a milder than usual New Year’s Eve night.
Pep Guardiola had labelled Jurgen Klopp as perhaps the best manager in the world at creating problems for the opposition in the final third, and as the Premier League’s most formidable forward line met the team with the most goals on their travels, the equation spelt a nightmare for the two men between the sticks.
When Liverpool scored inside 10 minutes, it gave further credence to that theory – especially fitted with the explosive recent history of fixtures against Manchester City.
But Gini Wijnaldum’s header proved to be the decisive moment of the match, with defensive doggedness and diligence providing the platform for the Reds to end 2016 in triumph and as Chelsea’s closest challengers.
The visitors joined Antonio Conte’s charges – as well as Arsenal, Tottenham, defending champions Leicester and Manchester United – in failing to take maximum points off Liverpool this season.
And Guardiola found himself on the long list of managers wondering just what the formula is to foil the Anfield outfit. City had disrupted the Reds’ usual fluidity, not allowing them the freedom to create, yet the hosts still forced a win.
Klopp had predicted pre-match that it would take “defending at the highest level” for a result to be achieved in the encounter.
In keeping with his thinking that Liverpool’s offensive moments would need extra protection, the 49-year-old restored midfielder Emre Can to the first 11 in place of Divock Origi.
While promoting greater security in the centre of the park, it also meant Roberto Firmino operated as the focal point again to press City’s rearguard menacingly.
The German had stayed in his seat early on while Guardiola surveyed the action by shuffling across his technical area. Eight minutes in, however, Klopp could no longer remain rooted as the Brazil international cleverly picked out Lallana, who was encouraged to foray forward and whip in a cross courtesy of Pablo Zabaleta’s passiveness.
The England international sliced his stellar delivery in-between the full-back and Raheem Sterling, with Wijnaldum expertly reading and meeting the ball. City had four players in the box before the midfielder arrived to head in.
It was the only goal of the first half, but the 45 minutes belonged to Liverpool beyond the scoreline. They were more threatening in the final third, while restricting the influence of Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero.
Claudio Bravo had more touches than the striker by the interval, while Sterling was finding himself having to revert backwards with James Milner superior in their tussle.
Man City did not have a single shot on target in the first half, and while they did well to close down passing lanes and force Liverpool into rushed decisions, their ambitions in the final third were not pronounced enough to cause any concern.
Liverpool’s half-time talk would’ve no doubt touched on the fact that while they were authoritative, they would have had a more comfortable advantage if they added incisiveness.
But it was City who were in the ascendancy in second half, even after Nathaniel Clyne surrendered a glorious chance to make it 2-0 after being left unmarked by De Bruyne in the area. David Silva went narrowly close with a curler after cutting in from the right with Aguero’s shot from distance not troubling Simon Mignolet in the moments prior.
City tried to morph into the expansive, dangerous opposition they often are, but that offered Liverpool opportunities to counter. Many of them were wasted through chaotic play when more clarity was required, while captain Jordan Henderson had to be replaced through injury.
Vincent Kompany watched proceedings sat among the away end where a blue flare went off with nothing to celebrate, because as the minutes ticked on, it became apparent that the Reds would not relinquish the game.
Guardiola remarked afterwards that City, now 10 points behind Chelsea, can only focus on the next challenge. Klopp, though, can look upwards.
Liverpool’s development in 2016, in which they’ve scored 87 goals, has been staggering. That there is scope for further enhancement to match their ambition should unsettle their rivals.