Pep Guardiola loves control. Jurgen Klopp loves chaos.
And for 45 astonishing, unforgettable minutes at Anfield on Wednesday night, the first leg of a frighteningly intense Champions League quarterfinal first leg between Liverpool and Manchester City was chaos.
It was beautiful, nerve-jangling, awe-inspiring chaos, and it ripped Guardiola’s beloved control right out of City’s hands in stunning fashion. One rousing goal, then another, then a third turned Europe’s most dominant team into a disorganized and shellshocked one.
Liverpool roared to a 3-0 victory that will surely see it through to the Champions League semifinals, and it did so because it did something nobody else in England or Europe has proven capable of. Klopp outcoached Guardiola, James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain outplayed their City counterparts, and the Reds caused City to unravel right before Guardiola’s eyes.
“We showed up, in the beginning of the game we were there,” Guardiola said in defeat. “We arrived with huge personality. Except 10 to 15 mins in the first half … we lost a little control.”
As Guardiola said, City was relatively comfortable for 10 minutes. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Leroy Sane’s misplaced pass set Liverpool off on a counter. Milner, fantastic all night, released Mohamed Salah down the right. Roberto Firmino outfought Kyle Walker in the box, and Salah incited bedlam.
City’s response was remarkably atypical. Guardiola’s side was rattled. Maybe it was the bottles and smoke that bombarded and damaged the team’s bus hours earlier. Maybe it was the eardrum-rattling noise.
More likely, it was Liverpool’s incessant pressure. It was the Reds’ energy. It was their unquenchable desire and indefatigable zeal.
Even the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne were conceding possession cheaply. Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Otamendi and Ederson were hoofing aimless long balls. Every City player looked flustered, a split-second slow to step to the ball, hesitant to press or bomb forward, unable to play their customarily resplendent football.
And Liverpool took advantage.
And it took advantage again.
Not until the final eight or so minutes of the first half did City settle down. In the second, it finally regained some semblance of comfort and control. But the damage had been done. And City, in an amazingly uneventful second half, couldn’t undo it.
For Guardiola and those already second-guessing him, the inquest will be excruciating. The Spanish boss deviated from the primary system that has taken his side to the top of the Premier League.
He benched Raheem Sterling and inserted Ilkay Gundogan into an unbalanced, morphing 4-5-1 that became something of a 3-2-4-1 when City had the ball. Gundogan played somewhat out of the position on the right. Kyle Walker dropped into a traditional back four without the ball, but bombed forward when City maintained possession, with Gundogan sliding inside. De Bruyne, City’s attacking maestro, played next to Fernandinho deep in midfield.
The reactive theory behind the changes wasn’t necessarily problematic. But the overarching philosophy – the decision to make considerable tweaks to a system that had become machine-like domestically – was. And when Liverpool interrupted Guardiola’s best-laid plans, City players look lost.
The visitors’ inability to create much of note in the second half was equally surprising. Liverpool were reduced to bus-parking when Mohamed Salah exited with an apparent groin injury, and bus-parking isn’t exactly something to which the Reds are accustomed. When asked to execute it in the past, they’ve failed. They nearly threw away a 4-1 lead against this same City team back in January, and had to cling to a 4-3 victory in stoppage time.
This time, there was no scraping and clawing late in the day. Liverpool didn’t just hold on. It kept a clean sheet that will likely prove critical in six days’ time. One goal at the Etihad next Tuesday will force City to get five.
But before anybody could even consider the second leg and the consequences of the first, they had to wait for the chaos to subside. For the Anfield roar to quiet down. For the fans that lined Liverpool streets for hours after the game to retire for the night.
They had to take a moment to let 90 minutes, and specifically 45, of unrelenting, breathtaking soccer sink in. They were the best of Liverpool’s season. Because they were, they were the worst of City’s. And they might just have knocked the soon-to-be Premier League winners out of Europe.
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