It was the night Manchester City reminded the football world that they have no intentions of giving up their Premier League crown. For Pep Guardiola and his players there is still a game of catch-up to play at the top of the table but they will like to think this victory could be a decisive blow. As the song goes, City intend to fight to the end and, if they are to relinquish their grip on the trophy, finger by finger, it will need something special from Liverpool to hold them off.
That much felt very clear during those jubilant scenes at the final whistle when City celebrated a victory that could conceivably give them fresh impetus in their quest to defend the title. Liverpool chose a bad night to concede two league goals for the first time this season and Leroy Sané’s decisive strike brings the gap down to four points.
A month ago it was City with a five-point cushion at the summit and playing with a freedom of expression to create the impression they were capable of turning the title race into a procession. That turnaround at the top of the table made it almost imperative the reigning champions ended Liverpool’s unbeaten start to the season and City played with an urgency that reflected the narrative. Yet for long spells they discovered here why Liverpool had the best defensive statistics in the league, why the team in red had conceded eight goals from their previous 20 fixtures and why Virgil van Dijk has been attracting so much acclaim for his performances.
In addition Liverpool always had the attacking players to ensure danger was lurking, exemplified when, with the game goalless, Mohamed Salah set up Sadio Mané for a shot that thudded back off the post.
Then, in the chaotic moments directly afterwards, time seemed to pause and it was incredible that Liverpool did not have a goal to celebrate. As John Stones’s attempted clearance came back off Ederson and started looping towards an exposed net it felt as if the entire stadium held its breath, expecting it to conclude with a barely conceivable own goal. The technology showed nine-tenths of the ball had crossed the goalline but not, however, the final tenth. Stones had somehow got back to hook the ball, brilliantly, from beneath his crossbar and City were spared by a matter of millimetres.
When Liverpool’s players watch the replay of that moment they will barely comprehend how Stones’s final swing of the ball missed Salah, from point-blank range, when even the merest of touches would have resulted in a goal.
City made the most of their good fortune and, when Agüero put them into the lead, five minutes before half‑time, it was a reminder that the truly great strikers save their best for the big occasions.
Bernardo Silva did the build-up work on the left and, for the first time, Agüero had moved away from Van Dijk to manoeuvre a yard for himself inside the penalty area. He was still left with an acute angle, shooting left to right, with an outstanding goalkeeper to beat. Agüero also had Dejan Lovren trying to close him down, having allowed the striker to nick the ball in front of him. Indeed, it was the kind of shooting opportunity on the half-turn that many strikers would have passed up as too difficult.
Agüero’s finish was a beauty: swivelling on the spot, connecting with his left boot to find power and precision. The ball was still rising as it flew into the narrow gap between Alisson and his near post and City had the goal they so desperately craved.
That continued Agüero’s record of having scored on all seven occasions he has faced Liverpool in league fixtures at this stadium. More importantly, it gave the home team an element of control when, until that point, Liverpool had seldom looked in threat. Andrew Robertson had been coping with Raheem Sterling, Trent Alexander‑Arnold had the speed and agility to match Sané and, at 0-0, it was rare to see City finding it so difficult to create chances.
Liverpool’s players might argue that Vincent Kompany was fortunate to be shown only a yellow card for a scything challenge on Salah. Yet there was still plenty of time for the visiting players to examine the durability of a City defence that had Danilo and Aymeric Laporte operating as full-backs.
Their equaliser came in the 64th minute when Alexander-Arnold aimed a deep cross into the area and Danilo was unable to connect with the ball. Robertson had advanced from defence and, when he squared the ball for Roberto Firmino it left the striker with a chance he could hardly miss from inside the six-yard box. Firmino added the decisive touch with a stooping header and, for City, that would have been a grievous setback but for what happened seven minutes later.
This time Sterling was prominently involved, taking the ball from Danilo and then cutting across the pitch before slipping a pass into Sané’s path. It needed a brilliant finish to beat Alisson – and Sané duly provided one.