Philippe Coutinho’s class fires Liverpool as City’s title hopes slide

Mercurial Brazilian midfielder is a class apart as Reds close in on top four

Liverpool 2 Manchester City 1

The decisive factor at Anfield would not be Liverpool's late return from Istanbul, claimed Manuel Pellegrini, but the performance of the teams on the day. He was almost correct. It was the contribution of Philippe Coutinho that enhanced Liverpool's Champions League credentials with a brilliant individual display and it is Manchester City's Premier League title defence that is looking fatigued.

Coutinho created one stunning goal for Jordan Henderson and produced another of his own to condemn Pellegrini's champions to a second damaging 2-1 defeat in six days. City, for all their investment and title-winning expertise, had no one who could compare with the vibrancy or potency of the magical Brazilian and their attempts to close the gap on Chelsea to two points floundered at a ground where they have not won since May 2003. This was a victory that will have Liverpool looking on fourth place as a minimum possibility.

Brendan Rodgers did all he could to minimise the impact of Thursday's 120-minute outing in the Europa League, making four changes to the side that started against Besiktas including a recall for the mesmerising Coutinho. The opening suggested his concerns at a 4.19am return on Friday would be realised as City controlled possession in a manner reminiscent of Barcelona's dominance of them in the Champions League. Instead, the visitors imploded during an error-strewn five-minute spell that energised Liverpool and a previously flat atmosphere.


Central to the shift was the influence of Coutinho and the alarming decline of Vincent Kompany in the heart of the City defence. Liverpool's mercurial Brazilian created the first chance of the game with remarkable ease when both Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala followed Raheem Sterling's run to leave a gaping hole in front of Joe Hart. Coutinho released Adam Lallana through the gap but his shot lacked conviction and Hart saved comfortably.

Seconds later, with City unable to clear their lines, Coutinho found Lallana once more and the midfielder produced an emphatic finish into the roof of Hart’s goal albeit from a clear offside position. More City mistakes ensured the reprieve was short-lived. Fernandinho, replacing Fernando following the Brazilian’s ineffectual performance against Barcelona, was under little pressure on the half-way line yet sold his captain short with a careless pass.

Kompany lost out in the challenge to the slight Coutinho who broke with speed and found Sterling. The 20-year-old squared to Jordan Henderson and Liverpool's captain for the day cut in from the left to send an outstanding finish into the top corner from 20 yards, giving Hart no chance. It was an exquisite breakthrough from a midfielder determined to take responsibility in the absence of the injured Steven Gerrard, but also a worrying sign for Pellegrini in terms of his own captain's contribution.

The Belgium international had struggled in the Champions League on Tuesday and City's centre was vulnerable again at Anfield. Kompany has resorted to the creaking centre half's refuge of instinctively blocking a striker's run by any means necessary, as he no longer backs his powers of recovery, yet Kompany was seemingly immune to a yellow card from the referee, Mark Clattenburg.

City almost levelled immediately when Sergio Agüero latched on to David Silva's ball over the top and sent a first time shot beyond Simon Mignolet but also against the foot of a post. The visitors gradually rediscovered their composure on the ball, in the final third at least, and demonstrated their ability to grind down opponents with a fine team goal midway through the half.

The equaliser originated from a loose pass by Coutinho of all people. Pablo Zabaleta intercepted a pass intended for Sterling, Yaya Touré picked out Silva, the Spaniard released Agüero into space in front of Liverpool's back three and the striker picked out Edin Dzeko's run in behind. Dzeko duly despatched a measured finish into Mignolet's bottom corner.

Despite regaining a measure of control City’s defence repeatedly struggled against Liverpool’s fast-moving forward line and it was the home side who continued to create the clearer openings. Lallana swept a half volley wide of the far post from Lazar Markovic’s chip into the box, Kompany blocked a Sterling shot on the stroke of half-time and the winger scuffed an excellent chance wide from Lallana’s inviting cross shortly after the restart.

The second half developed into a scrappy, even affair in desperate need of a moment of class to lift it beyond the ordinary. Coutinho was the man to oblige. There were 15 minutes remaining when Sterling spun away from his marker and found Liverpool's No 10 lurking with intent to the left of the City area. Coutinho stepped inside Samir Nasri and, without needing to glance up, curled a superb shot over Hart's despairing dive into the far corner. A goal worthy of winning any game and, quite possibly, undermining a title challenge in the process.

(Guardian service)