Game over! And the title race takes another twist as City end Liverpool’s unbeaten run and cut their lead at the top to four points.
To paraphrase Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday, football is a game of inches and tonight they fell in City’s favour. Liverpool hit the post and were later millilitres from taking the lead. When City hit the post, it went in, when Aguero had no angle to score, he found the net.
City were probably the better side over the 90 minutes. But on such tiny margins titles are won and lost.
Off it came, from the inside of the right post. Along the goal line, in at the left post. Ladies and gentlemen, we have what is known as a title race. And a proper one, now the head to head meetings of these teams are done.
Match by match, weekend by weekend, they will fight each other by proxy. Maybe Tottenham will chip in, too. It should be grand entertainment. Buckle yourself in.
Leroy Sane was the matchwinner, just at the point when Liverpool looked to have triumphed. Not with victory, but with the draw that kept City at arm’s length. Seven points is a hefty margin, even in January.
Of course, they remain defensively vulnerable. Liverpool’s equaliser was a classic example of the frailty that has left them playing catch-up this season. A deep cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold should have been comfortably dealt with at the far post. Instead, Danilo got trapped under it, Andrew Robertson played a chip across the six yard box and Roberto Firmino headed it into an empty net, because Sterling had not spotted his movement. Late in the game Mo Salah had a shot saved by goalkeeper Emerson, and Pep Guardiola nearly talked himself into a seat in the main stand protesting what he considered a push by Jordan Henderson on John Stones in the build-up.
Yet Anthony Taylor indulged and City prevailed. Their first goal, from Sergio Aguero, was his 250th for the club and his 37th against one of the ‘big six’ in the league since the start of the 2011-12 season. To put that into perspective, Harry Kane has 21, Wayne Rooney 20. What a player he is. What a title race this could be.
More than two years have elapsed since Manchester City last went this deep into a league game without a shot at goal. That is what Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool do. They set traps all over the field now. Not just upfront where the trident of forwards burst through the defensive line with a counter attacking speed that is the match for any team in the world right now; but at the back, too, where Virgil van Dijk uses his immense game intelligence to sweep, as part of a back four. Liverpool show even the smartest opponents into dead ends and blind alleys and for 40 minutes Manchester City were impressive and bold, without actually threatening Alisson Becker in Liverpool’s goal. The final pass went astray or was snaffled by van Dijk, while Andrew Robertson had a fabulous Home International contest with Raheem Sterling on the flank.
And then, in the 40th minute, all that changed. And it was Sergio Aguero, as ever, who changed it. Aguero has played six games at home against Liverpool, and scored in every one of them. Make that seven. He broke the deadlock here with a quite superb goal from as tight angle, the type of defining moment in a huge contest for which goalscorers earn the big bucks. Manchester City must have been wondering how they were going to get past van Dijk, surely the Football of the Year in waiting if Liverpool win the league. Aguero had the answer to that: play against Dejan Lovren.
He improvised brilliantly in the build-up, too. The merest touch from van Dijk as the pair jostled for a cross sent Aguero to ground, appealing for a penalty. Referee Anthony Taylor was having none of it, but Aguero had an even better idea.
He stayed down, in protest, as the ball was cleared and carried around the perimeter of the penalty area by Bernardo Silva. Only then did Aguero rise as Silva moved into position to recycle. Now he had lost van Dijk, busy elsewhere, and was up against Lovren when the cross was delivered. He held it up, turned the Croatian – who is a good defender, but never quite as impermeable as he believes – and fired a shot past Alisson into the roof of the net.
MATCH FACTS AND STATS
Man City XI: Ederson, Stones, Kompany (Otamendi 88), Laporte (Walker 86), Danilo, Bernardo Silva, Fernandinho, Silva (Gundogan 65), Sterling, Aguero, Sane.
Subs not used: De Bruyne, Mahrez, Gabriel Jesus, Muric.
Goals: Aguero 40, Sane 72
Booked: Kompany, Laporte, Bernardo, Ederson.
Liverpool XI: Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Lovren, van Dijk, Robertson, Wijnaldum (Sturridge 86), Henderson, Milner (Fabinho 57), Salah, Firmino, Mane (Shaqiri 77).
Subs not used: Keita, Moreno, Lallana, Mignolet.
Goals: Firmino 64
Booked: Lovren, Wijnaldum.
Referee: Anthony Taylor