Mahrez penalty miss leaves Liverpool and Manchester City at impasse
Daniel Taylor at Anfield
Sun 7 Oct 2018 18.34 BST
When the story is told of the 2018‑19 Premier League season it will be an oddity that the first heavyweight contest between the two sides who are widely assumed to have the outstanding players – the challengers versus the champions, according to the television blurb – is fit for a place in only the small print.
Did Liverpool versus Manchester City, with all their attacking riches, really just finish in a 0-0 draw? Not many would have anticipated such an outcome and, for Riyad Mahrez, it will be remembered as a personal ordeal.
Liverpool 0-0 Manchester City: Premier League — as it happened
If nothing else, Mahrez at least showed the nerve to seize the ball when Virgil van Dijk’s maladroit challenge on Leroy Sané, one of City’s substitutes, gave Pep Guardiola’s team an 85th-minute penalty and the chance to win a strangely subdued match. By that stage Sergio Agüero, City’s usual penalty-taker, had been substituted. His replacement, Gabriel Jesus, wanted the glory but Mahrez was given the responsibility and City will regret the missed opportunity. Mahrez’s penalty was struck wildly, skyrocketed over the crossbar and still rising as it flew into the crowd.
Should he have taken it in the first place? Mahrez has now missed five of his last eight penalties and, at the very least, it is a legitimate question bearing in mind the importance of that kick, with City trying to strike a significant early blow in the title race. Mahrez had the chance to secure City’s first win at Anfield in 18 attempts. As it was, Liverpool can reflect on a lucky escape on a day that was otherwise full of intrigue but low on incident and, for long spells, not far off being a bit of a stinker.
If that sounds slightly harsh, perhaps it is because of last season’s epic contest when Liverpool led 4-1, were pegged back to 4-3 in the final six minutes and City very nearly completed an improbable feat of escapology in stoppage time. Guardiola did not enjoy coming off second-best in a seven-goal thriller and this time his side were set up to play with restraint, to slow the game down and stop Liverpool rolling out the favourite Anfield tactic of sustained, often wild pressure. That left Liverpool with a different type of challenge and the most disappointing part for Jürgen Klopp must be that they did not have the wit or creativity to conjure up a single clear chance.
It was certainly unusual to see the amount of time City’s players spent passing the ball around their own defence, often at little more than walking pace, while the Liverpool fans whistled their discontent. It did not help the match as a spectacle but Guardiola clearly thought it was worth trying something different and, however much it was out of character, perhaps he could be excused this one time.
It was May 2003 when City last won at Anfield, with Kevin Keegan in the dugout and Nicolas Anelka scoring the last-minute winner. If Mahrez had struck his shot on target, City might have been celebrating a brilliantly disciplined away performance – just not the tactics, perhaps, that would usually be expected of Guardiola.
By the midway point of the first half Liverpool had been subdued to the point that a triumphant cry of “Where’s your famous atmosphere?” could be heard from the away supporters. That brought a nice riposte of “Where’s your European Cups?” from the Kop, but on the pitch the home team were finding it difficult to fathom out what their opponents were scheming. Liverpool desperately needed one of their front players to seize the game by its lapels, liven up the tempo and encourage the crowd to turn up the volume. As it was, Mohamed Salah toiled away without any real joy. If anything, Salah was the pick of Liverpool’s attackers but he, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané have rarely looked so ineffective as a front three.
Not that City were too potent themselves. Indeed, here is a question: when was the last time Agüero started for City without having a single chance to test the opposition goalkeeper? That was the problem with Guardiola’s tactics – by adopting this new, slower keep-ball they sacrificed some of the attacking qualities that make them such a dangerous team in their own right. City did control large spells of play but it was often bordering on risk-free football, with their full-backs rarely venturing forward, Bernardo Silva operating in a more withdrawn role than usual and Raheem Sterling, as often happens at Anfield, finding it difficult to have any positive impact.
Nonetheless City still looked the more rounded side. They also had another three penalty appeals throughout the match, two of them coming against Dejan Lovren for a first-half challenge on Agüero and, later, for swiping his hand into the face of Jesus to stop a promising run from the Brazilian.
Liverpool, who lost James Milner to a hamstring injury, were also grateful the referee, Martin Atkinson, ruled that Van Dijk had been pushed by Fernandinho after the centre-half jutted out an arm to block the ball while defending a corner. The penalty Atkinson did award came from a needless challenge from Van Dijk. Mahrez was appointed to take it and Guardiola later apologised to Jesus for what might have been a costly misjudgment.
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