Firmino’s magic helps Liverpool end Manchester City’s record run
Brazilian assisted in opening goal and lit up Anfield with superb dinked finish
Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren in action against Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling. The former Liverpool player was greeted with huge boos when he first touched the ball. Photograph: EPA
There was a moment of jarringly delicate beauty 58 minutes into this game as Liverpool did not just beat Manchester City at Anfield, but wrenched that frictionless unbeaten run away from the league leaders with a startling, controlled fury.
Jürgen Klopp’s side were led here by Roberto Firmino, who produced another performance of thrillingly sustained energy and skill, terrorising City’s backline at times in the second half, and embodying the pure exhilaration of Klopp’s high-craft power-chord football. With the score level at 1-1 Liverpool were already thrumming up through the gears, about to enter a rare 10-minute period of synchronised press-and-move football during which the whole world seemed to turn a shade of red; and during which they were, briefly, unstoppable.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain took the ball deep in Liverpool’s half and played a snaking pass inside John Stones. As Stones turned to shield the ball he was bullocked out of the way with malevolent glee by Firmino, a player for whom pressing and closing down is a not so much a chore as hungrily devoured pleasure.
With Stones on his knees Firmino paused, looked up and produced a moment of startling delicacy, from sledgehammer to scalpel in a single shift of feet, lifting a lovingly dinked finish past Ederson as he rushed out. For a moment the ball seemed to hang dreamily under the lights, the air rushing out of the stadium, before falling in a gentle parabola and bouncing in off the post.
Anfield exploded with a huge gurgle of joy. Firmino sprinted for the corner flag. Three minutes later it was 3-1, from a similar moment of snatch and run. Mohamed Salah robbed Nicolas Otamendi, then fed the ball across the penalty area. Sadio Mané picked it up, paused and spanked the ball with startling precision into the top corner.
It was always likely to take something like this to throw City out of their stride, a performance where every part thunked into place, where both the plan and the execution reached a rare pitch of perfection .
How to play City, how to beat City, how to make at least some imprint on that well-grooved machine has been a theme of the this mid season title stroll . Liverpool’s hard running, hard-pressing style had always offered some hope of locating the glass jaw some had suggested still lurks behind that annihilating jab, the poise of City’s passing game. And City played their part in a wonderfully open game. Where other managers might have tried to shut things down away to their liveliest challengers, Guardiola put out a team with three full-time defenders and six midfielders of varying shades. Klopp made one big call, dropping Simon Mignolet for Loris Karius.
On a freezing, damp, ear-numbing afternoon Anfield’s vast single-tier stands were crackling with a genuine electricity at kick-off. And with three minutes gone two things happened for the first time that would come to define this game. Firmino ripped a huge hole in the centre of City’s defence, barging a yard of space and flicking the ball cleverly into Mané’s path, setting the tone for an afternoon where Liverpool’s frontline would play right up against one another, like three men roped together on a mountain.
Moments later the second thing happened. Raheem Sterling touched the ball for the first time, to huge boos, and then gave it away for the first time, to huge cheers. If Firmino led Liverpool’s surge here, Sterling was a key part in City’s stumbling start. He had a nightmare. Sterling left the pitch with 25 minutes to go, roared off to a standing anti ovation by the home crowd after one of those performances where no matter how hard you try, how furiously you work to put things right, they just keep slipping away, the bobble off the shin, the muffed dribbles, the inevitable booking.
As he brushes his teeth this evening Sterling will no doubt find himself taking a sneaky look up in the mirror just to check that shape lurking by the bathroom door isn’t Andrew Robertson steaming out of the airing cupboard to make another sniping, raking challenge at his heels.
Before long Firmino had helped make the opening goal for Oxlade Chamberlain, stealing the ball from Fabian Delph and feeding it forwards. Oxlade-Chamberlain pinged a hard low shot into the far corner, taking it so early Ederson had no time to adjust his position as he clawed helplessly. As half-time approached Kevin De Bruyne, who was brilliant in defeat, led City back into this game. And even in occasionally traumatic defeat City scored three goals, and might even have pulled it back to 4-4.
No doubt Premier League teams will wonder if this level of forward fury can be replicated, if Liverpool might just have left a lasting bruise. It seems unlikely, not many have a Firmino to throw at this City defence, a blue of movement, power and creative mischief on an afternoon when City finally met an opponent in their own irresistible red zone.