Some days in football are just golden. For Liverpool, this was one of those rare occasions when everything came together and an admiring audience was left to wonder whether they might, after all, have the wit and gumption to sustain an authentic Premier League challenge rather than just flit around the edges.
What other conclusion can be drawn from the way Rafael Benítez's players responded to going two goals down by dismantling Manchester City? Their passing was stylish, their spirit one of togetherness and, in arguably the most dramatic game in England's top division so far this season, it culminated in that most dramatic and brutal of football moments - the stoppage-time winner that leaves opponents helpless to do anything about.
By then, the blood had drained from the faces of those City supporters who, at half-time, were giddily asking each other when, if ever, they had seen their team play so exquisitely. For it to end this way represents a bruising experience. Typical City, you could say. Yet that would be doing a huge disservice to the way Liverpool played in the second half and, in particular, Fernando Torres's ability to penetrate English defences. The Spaniard was majestic, his fourth and fifth goals of the season bringing the game level, and it was his deflected shot that fell to Dirk Kuyt to complete this remarkable comeback.
"The reaction we showed in the second half was fantastic," said Benítez, eyes sparkling. "The character, the determination. The thing our players showed is that they always believe. They went out in the second half believing they could win. It was a result that came from their mentality."
He was entitled to eulogise about the quality of Liverpool's play and City's supporters were wrong to try to pin the blame on the referee, Peter Walton, for sending off Pablo Zabaleta for his challenge on Xabi Alonso midway through the second half, with the score at 2-1. The red card badly undermined City's chances of holding on but the video replays do not support the Argentinian's protests. "I've seen it in slow-motion and I can understand why the referee has gone for his red card," Mark Hughes, the City manager, who was indignant at the time, acknowledged.
Liverpool were level within six minutes, Torres heading Steven Gerrard's corner past Joe Hart after a diagonal run to the near post. Torres, paradoxically, then skied his easiest chance of the game but the second half had become a story of near-unremitting pressure on Hart's goal. The game had been turned upside down. "I've seen a lot of Liverpool and in the first half I think we caused them as many problems as any other team this season," Hughes reflected. "We took the game to a very good side and I think we were excellent."
Stephen Ireland had volleyed City into a 19th-minute lead and when Javier Garrido curled a wonderful free-kick past Pepe Reina four minutes before the break, at the height of their superiority, it was starting to feel like this was the day that the Premier League's newest billionaires gave the Big Four a jolt where it matters most: on the pitch. Everyone's eyes naturally fall on Robinho but it was another Brazilian, Elano, who was running the game. It was not that Liverpool played badly, just that City were magnificent.
But then it changed. Ten minutes into the second half, Gerrard played in Alvaro Arbeloa who crossed for Torres to slide in Liverpool's first goal. And thereafter Gerrard, Alonso and Kuyt dominated in midfield. Benítez brought on another striker, Robbie Keane, to help out Torres and, a man down, City could not cope with the speed and accuracy with which their opponents moved the ball.
Finally, the substitute Yossi Benayoun slipped in Torres for another shot at goal, his effort clipped Richard Dunne and Kuyt swept in the rebound to consign City, these Champions League wannabes, to the highly unsatisfactory statistic of four defeats in seven league fixtures.
Liverpool are unbeaten and they did a lot here to suggest they might have the durability not to drift out of the title race in the same way as previous seasons. The perfect day? Not quite, on an afternoon that saw Martin Skrtel carried off on a stretcher with a knee injury. He will have a scan today to ascertain whether there is knee ligament damage.
Their team may never pull off another comeback to compare with the 2005 Champions League final but this recovery will live in the memory.
Man of the match: Fernando Torres (Liverpool)
Final score Manchester City 2 – 3
(HT 2 – 0)
Bookings Dunne 86
Sent off Zabaleta 67
Manchester City's Percentage Liverpool's Percentage
Corners 1 12% 7 88%
Goal attempts 7 33% 14 67%
On target 5 41% 7 59%
Fouls 11 47% 12 53%
Offside 1 14% 6 86%
Manchester City Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Javier Garrido, Richard Dunne, Micah Richards, Vincent Kompany, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Blumer Elano (Martin Petrov, 85), Stephen Ireland, Robson de Souza Robinho (Ched Evans, 80), Joao Alves Jo (Gelson Fernandes, 70)
Liverpool Jose Manuel Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Fabio Aurelio (Andrea Dossena, 70), Martin Skrtel, Jamie Carragher, Albert Riera (Yossi Benayoun, 81), Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano (Robbie Keane, 71), Xabi Alonso, Dirk Kuyt, Fernando Torres
Referee Walton, P
Venue City of Manchester Stadium
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