A superhuman first-half display by rampant Liverpool earned a brilliant 3-0 victory against shell-shocked Manchester City to make them strong favourites to proceed in the Champions League quarter-finals.
The rampant Premier League leaders – just like in January’s solitary top-flight defeat – wilted at Anfield. Egypt forward Mohamed Salah slotted in a 12th-minute opener after a defensive shambles, England midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain lashed in from 25 yards soon after and Senegal forward Sadio Mane headed in to round off the scoring just past the half-hour mark.
This result leaves City with a mountain to climb in next week’s decider.
NO PEP FROM GUARDIOLA
It feels sacrilegious to chastise a tactical genius like Pep Guardiola. Yet the Spaniard got it wrong at Anfield. Potentially terminally.
On Wednesday night, his new 4-2-3-1 formation was unfit for purpose. Strangely, he chose to line-up with Ilkay Gundogan, Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne for the first time since an uncharacteristically poor first-half display was put in during February’s eventual 3-0 victory against Arsenal in the League Cup final.
Gundogan was a spare part that Liverpool preyed upon. He did nothing in his pocket out on the right, also being chopped through by the brilliant James Milner in the build-up to Liverpool’s second.
Terminal problems in possession also hamstrung them at the back. Neither Vincent Kompany or Nicolas Otamendi were comfortable enough to pass beyond the choking press.
Oddest of all, only former Liverpool villain Raheem Sterling was called from the substitutes’ bench despite the disaster unfolding.
That this was City’s first match without a shot on target in 18 months points further to an extreme tactical failure.
It is not like Guardiola went in blind. He boldly predicted before the game: “I know the way we play is perfect for Liverpool.”
He can’t say there was no warning.
SANE HAS A SHOCKER
Germany winger Leroy Sane wasn’t alone among the disappointing men in light blue.
England right-back Kyle Walker committed at least two defensive mistakes for the opener, Gundogan looked lost and even Belgium orchestrator De Bruyne put in just one key pass.
But Sane’s awful performance was the most jarring.
With dewy-eyed Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold badly exposed by Manchester United last month, Guardiola decided to pick at this apparent weakness.
Sane, admittedly not helped by unadventurous auxiliary left-back Aymeric Laporte, hamstrung this plan with a rare off night in a fine season that had previously delivered 13 goals in 41 games. In total, 49 per cent of their play went down that side – with nothing to show for it.
He turned an attacking corner into Mohamed Salah’s 12th-minute opener with an idiotic pass in centre midfield, had two off-target shots, no accurate crosses, no key passes and strayed clumsily offside when Gabriel Jesus put the ball in the net late on.
Only five days before, Sane had scored a fine goal across Stanley Park at Everton. A repeat was not on the cards.
NOT EVERYTHING IS FOR SALE
The adage goes that you can’t buy experience.
For all the transformative power of City Football Group’s revolutionary £1 billion+ (Dh5.2bn) investment since 2008, this match bore out the phrase.
None of the starting players at Anfield have won the Champions League.
The club have only made the quarter-finals of the competition once before. Paris Saint-Germain were their victims in 2015/16.
City have now lost 16 of their last 22 meetings at the home of the Reds. Their previous victory came a generation ago in May 2003 when current striker Gabriel Jesus was just five-years-old.
The influence of the fabled ‘Anfield Roar’ is up for debate. What cannot be questioned is how this current City bunch shrunk on Wednesday night.
Would more seasoned heads have prevailed? This is an issue that will come into greater focus if, somehow, they roar through at Etihad Stadium on Tuesday.
On ability alone, there is no disparity to likely semi-final qualifiers Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
A vast chasm exists in mentality.
0 - Manchester City failed to direct a single shot on target in a game for the first time since 26th October 2016 (v Man Utd in the League Cup). Blunt.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 4, 2018
Liverpool crushed Manchester City 3-0 in the Champions League quarter-final first leg on Wednesday.
Here are three things we learned from a Liverpool perspective.
STYLES MAKE MATCHES
Pep Guardiola admitted in the midweek build-up that Man City’s style make them a “perfect opponent” for Liverpool.
Those words were fortified on Wednesday. Jurgen Klopp secured his seventh victory in 13 clashes with Guardiola – the most of any manager the Catalan has faced – and it was evidenced once more that he has the blueprint for victory against the City boss.
No other team in the world can attack space quite in the way Liverpool do, the unsteady visitors were simply overwhelmed and overloaded in the first 30 minutes.
Liverpool’s timing of the press was perfect, snapping into a compact 4-3-3 shape and pocketing the ball when City fell into their trap. David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne both gave the ball away frequently and it left City painfully exposed.
The Reds found gaps and exploited it, countering with expert speed for Mohamed Salah to open the scoring, pressing high up the pitch to feed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for his rocket and then Sadio Mane nipping in between Vincent Kompany and Fernandinho to head home.
The old boxing cliche determines styles make fights, and that translates whenever Guardiola and Klopp face off – more often than not it’s the German who delivers a knockout blow.
Now, they go to the Etihad Stadium seeking the coup de grace.
Pitting a midfield three containing a 32-year-old James Milner, an Arsenal failure in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and an apparently “limited” Jordan Henderson against the guile and panache of City’s creative cognition David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne appeared unsettling on paper.
Yet, to a man all three were tremendous. Milner looked terribly off the pace when he entered from the bench in January’s 4-3 win after a Liverpool midfield consisting of Gini Wijnaldum and Emre Can pressed City into submission.
Here, Milner was a machine, charging around the pitch to win the ball back with the type of dogged determination of a man robbed of his wallet.
His first-half stats read: 100 percent aerial duels won, 45 touches, 30 passes, five tackles won, two interceptions, one chance created and an eighth Champions League assist of the season – the most in the competition.
Henderson, too, was a colossus. The criticism he receives verges on the bizarre sometimes but he suffocated De Bruyne, was positionally excellent and made the midfield tick.
The captain’s booking means he will be suspended for the second leg and will be missed dearly.
Finally, there is Oxlade-Chamberlain who detonated a rocket to blast Ederson’s net and his detractors.
The strike was so sweetly struck the ball barely moved in flight. A goal, an assist and defensive solidity, Klopp couldn’t have asked for a better performance from his midfield.
SALAH INJURY A CONCERN
Whether it was a precautionary measure remains to be seen but the sight of Mohamed Salah trudging off down the tunnel will surely worry Liverpool supporters.
Once again he was City’s tormentor, opening the scoring with consummate ease amid the chaos. But it’s not just his sharpshooting which is so crucial to the Reds, as was evidenced when he went off.
The Reds lost their rhythm and chief outlet on the counter while defensively they dropped further and further back onto the edge of their own box without his presence in the press.
The hosts formation switched from 4-3-3 and went 4-5-1 when he exited with a groin complaint and Klopp will hope the Egyptian is fit for the second leg to avoid a repeat of the second 45.
Liverpool produced a scintillating first-half display to take a 3-0 lead against Manchester City in their Champions League quarter-final tie.
Mohamed Salah’s stunning form continued, as he netted his 38th goal of the season following a quick break from the Reds that left City chasing shadows.