Leroy Sane scores winner as Man City close in on Liverpool with pulsating victory
Just 11 millimetres – less than half an inch. It may be the margin between this Premier League title race being over, with Liverpool the champions-elect, and back on, as Manchester City dug deep to reduce their rivals’ lead to just four points when it could have been 10.
That would have felt like a chasm, a daunting gulf, but City fought back like the champions they are while the raw, baying atmosphere inside the Etihad was extraordinary.
On a night of high drama, Pep Guardiola’s side inflicted Liverpool’s first league defeat of the season, after 21 matches, but had John Stones not astonishingly cleared the ball off the line when the game was goalless then the destiny of the title could have been settled already.
Goal-line technology showed Stones did so before the remaining 11 millimetres of the ball had crossed. Maybe City would have surged back but once ahead, recent history has shown Liverpool are extremely difficult to peg back and a draw would have been good enough for them.
Fine margins, as they say, and few have been finer – and almost as fine was City’s winning goal, struck by Leroy Sane, whose shot actually hit both posts before trundling over the goal-line.
Maybe, also, it would have been even harder for City had Vincent Kompany been sent off in the first half, as he could have been, for a two-footed lunge at Mohamed Salah. The City captain saw yellow but it could easily have been red.
For Jurgen Klopp, who certainly thought it was a dismissal and worse than the offence that saw Sadio Mane sent off here last season, this was a frustrating loss. Even more so after his team had pulled level following Sergio Aguero’s superb opener, the 250th league goal of his career.
Tactically Klopp may also have got it wrong with his midfield selection of James Milner, who was dominated by Fernandinho, while Guardiola varied his approach, unashamedly and often going long to hit his front three and beat Liverpool’s press.
Tottenham Hotspur are still in this title contest as well, and this was also a good result for them if they have genuine ambition to challenge. City, though, had to win. And did, for only the second time against Liverpool in 12 matches.
“We can’t deny, this is massive,” Guardiola pronounced pre-match and to borrow a favoured song from four miles or so away at Old Trafford, this was the one. At the final whistle, if there was any doubt as to its importance, Guardiola let out a visceral roar of relief after earlier having been spoken to by Anthony Taylor, the referee, for berating the fourth official, Martin Atkinson.
It was incredibly intense and tense. There was intent, aggression and a sharp competitiveness – and that was just from the cajoling, gesticulating, imploring, relentless duo of Guardiola and Klopp on the touchline.
They both stood still, though, as Salah surged forward, combining smartly with Roberto Firmino and slipping a pass through to the elusive Mane, who stole a yard on Stones before beating Ederson with a low shot.
It thumped back off the post with Stones’s attempted clearance cannoning back off Ederson, who had got in his defender’s way as he dived to try to collect the loose ball. It flew goalwards, bounced on the line but remarkably Stones scrambled back to hook clear before it fully went into the goal and before Salah pounced on it. Even then it went through Salah’s legs. “Close. VERY close” as the Premier League’s official Twitter feed put it after the goal-line technology confirmed “no goal”.
Instead of being a goal down, and possibly also a man down, City found themselves ahead with, again, Aguero the scorer. It was a predator’s goal and he is the ultimate predator. Having hit the turf as he challenged Virgil van Dijk, Aguero picked himself up to take one touch, as he met Bernardo Silva’s cross, and strike a powerful rising left-footed half-volley from the tightest of angles to beat Alisson Becker high at his near post.
Just as City were struggling, Aguero had intervened to maintain a record of always scoring against Liverpool here – a run of seven games. It felt like a tough scoreline for Liverpool to take, although fingers will have been pointed at Dejan Lovren for his slow reaction as Aguero stole in.
City then felt their own sense of injustice as Raheem Sterling ran into the Liverpool area, checked and argued he was hauled down by Andrew Robertson, with his penalty appears waved away.
Klopp had seen enough, shuffling his midfield by bringing on Fabinho, desperate to wrestle away Fernandinho’s control, and there was a response.
They drew level. Trent Alexander-Arnold crossed deep from the right and it was met by the other full-back, Robertson, running in behind Danilo, who misjudged the flight. Robertson volleyed back across goal and there was Firmino to stoop and head home.
What next? Could City respond? There was time. And there was another twist.
Sane had been a growing threat and he provided the decisive breakthrough as City poured forward and Sterling smartly checked to remain onside before transferring the ball out left. Sane took a touch and drove a low shot back across Alisson. It struck the far post, then the near and deflected into the goal. It had swung again and maybe also had the title race.
Nerves shredded. After Ederson superbly saved from Salah, Guardiola reacted furiously, believing there had been a foul in the build-up, and his fury rarely subsided, although there was disbelief when Alisson beat out a fierce shot by Bernardo and Sterling drove the rebound wide.
He had to score but Liverpool could not take advantage of the five minutes of added time and City had their win. A month ago they were five points clear. They could have been 10 points behind. Instead it is four. “Post in or post out can make a massive difference,” Klopp said. Just like those 11 millimetres. It was that tight. This title race, hopefully, will go down to a photo finish.
Jurgen Klopp post-match
"Very intense game. We were unlucky in our finishing moments, a bit more than City I would say. They had periods where they dominated the game but we came back into it, had chances, we had Mo, Gini, all that stuff, it's always like this. When you look at Aguero's goal there's no angle! There's no angle. It's in the roof. It was not our best game, not City's best game because we both made life difficult for the other team. I've said already to the boys that's completely OK, we could have won we could have drawn but that's OK.
"One situation when I really like Vincent Kompany but how on earth is that not a red card?! He's the last man! And if he hits Mo more then he's out for the rest of the season. It's like it is, sometimes the ref for sure it's not easy but it's all OK, they scored two we scored one.
"Our expectation was pretty high, we can play better. It started not that well, had two little balls that we lost, so it was immediately hectic. That's what happens with the respect we have for each other. It was a very intense game. You have to take the game as it is, you cannot always dominate. You can always learn from it. With a bit more luck we could have scored, it's not half that good.
"The boys did outstandingly well. We have to show constantly that we are on top of our game and now in four days is FA Cup and then Brighton and we will be ready for that."
Copyright - The Telegraph