Pep Guardiola praises Riyad Mahrez's 'courage' despite penalty miss

Jason Burt, Chief Football Correspondent, at Anfield 
7 October 2018 • 9:30pm

The hope was that this highly- anticipated match would hit new heights. Instead it was just the ball that did that with Riyad Mahrez’s shocking late penalty miss which went high, and not very handsome, into the Anfield Road stand to Liverpool’s unbridled delight. Manchester City did not wear their usual kit but there was a sky blue ending as the ball sailed towards the heavens. Frankly it was not what record signings such as Mahrez are acquired for.

It meant City wasted the chance – at their 18th attempt – to record a first victory away to Liverpool since 2003. More positively they re-assumed the leadership of the Premier League but only on goal difference from Chelsea, and Liverpool, all locked on 20 points, as points were thrown away even if this was probably a fair result.

There was a kerfuffle over the penalty – not the award, which was correct, after Virgil Van Dijk brought down Leroy Sane in the 86th minute as the City substitute shaped to shoot having run on to David Silva’s cute pass – but over who would take it.

With Sergio Aguero off the pitch and appearing unhappy at being substituted it was his replacement Gabriel Jesus who first collected the ball. Except manager Pep Guardiola over-ruled and called Benjamin Mendy over to the touchline to inform Jesus to give the ball to Mahrez. The Brazilian was not pleased.

“He had the courage and the balls to take the penalty,” Guardiola said of Mahrez, even though the £60million signing from Leicester City has missed five of his last eight spot-kicks.

“In training he shoots perfect penalties but sometimes it happens. The usual taker is Sergio Aguero but he wasn’t there,” Guardiola explained. Asked whether it was true Jesus wanted to take the penalty, the manager said: “Yeah, he wanted. I apologise. Yeah, of course.”

The churlish would argue that was not the only apology needed after these two free-scoring sides did not score a single goal and did not even register a shot on target until Mahrez’s effort was easily fielded by Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker on 62 minutes.

Later Mahrez tried to explain his penalty miss. “I made the decision to shoot in the middle - the ball went up,” the forward said. “It won’t affect me at all. Everyone misses penalties, even big, big players. Of course I wanted to score to help the team to win.”

It is true that this encounter was nothing like the four meetings last season – in the Premier League and the Champions League – which yielded 18 goals but that was also due to the clear mutual respect that exists between these two teams and their managers. In fact Guardiola paid Jurgen Klopp the ultimate compliment by – again – doing what he vowed he would never do and modifying his dominant approach to acknowledge Liverpool’s threat.

City ‘only’ had 51 per cent possession, the lowest they have ever registered under Guardiola, and that was partly a deliberate tactic to break the intensity of Liverpool’s pressing game and spread play wide. Interestingly the City centre-backs, John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, split with goalkeeper Ederson even encouraged to pass the ball across his own six-yard area to try and negate the threat of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.

Given that Liverpool’s most impressive performer – along with Jordan Henderson – was their centre-half Dejan Lovren then it was evident that defences were on top. Lovren was all the more impressive given this was his first league start of the season.

Even so he may have been fortunate not to concede a first-half penalty when he was played into trouble by Joe Gomez – uncomfortable at right-back as he replaced Trent Alexander-Arnold – who shanked a clearance back into his own area where Aguero seized on the ball. Lovren clumsily challenged, Aguero went down but it was only his team-mates who appealed as he quickly got back up.

Referee Martin Atkinson was unmoved then and was unmoved in the second-half when City again claimed a penalty as the ball struck Van Dijk’s arm from a corner – only for the official to award a free-kick against Fernandinho who had his arm across the defender. Nevertheless Guardiola was not pleased and was also angered by Henderson’s response to a late, high tackle by Aguero. Words were exchanged, with the two managers also talking – albeit amicably – as this keenly-contested match remained on the sharpest of knife-edges.

For Liverpool there is relief that they have come through a demanding set of fixtures – including Chelsea away last weekend and a midweek Champions League away match against Napoli – and there were encouraging signs in that Salah was more threatening.

The result means they have also collected 10 consecutive clean sheets at home and are now unbeaten in their last 25 Premier League matches at Anfield – the best run in the division even if the stadium was not as intense as it has been when these two sides usually meet. The stakes are getting higher.

The only downside for Liverpool, apart from not gaining the victory, was the first-half loss of James Milner to an apparent hamstring injury.

No-one could fault the endeavour. Both teams, both managers, wanted to win and all the substitutions were positive. The defending was formidable but no buses were parked and Mahrez probably went closest in open play also when he sent a low shot across goal and just beyond Alisson’s far post.

For Liverpool Salah superbly took a long ball from Andrew Robertson in his stride but could not find the accuracy to chip Ederson and the opportunity went begging. Just as it appeared it would peter out Liverpool lost possession and City countered to win the penalty. Then came Mahrez’s astronomical miss which was so dramatic that it seemed to affect both sides who, nevertheless, remain unbeaten in the Premier League.

Copyright - The Telegraph

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