The title race is back on.
Liverpool’s undefeated start to the Premier League season came to an end Thursday, as Manchester City stained the Reds’ unblemished mark by virtue of an enthralling, tense 2-1 victory at the Etihad. Goals from Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane sandwiched a Roberto Firmino header, as Jurgen Klopp and Co. had their lead atop the table whittled to four points.
There’s still a long way to go, but Pep Guardiola’s side rejuvenated its title charge by dealing the Reds their first league loss in 242 days. With that in mind, here are three things we learned from City’s vital victory.
Aguero steps up when it matters most … again
Sergio Aguero is no stranger to crucial goals. The Argentine, responsible for arguably the most famous strike in Premier League history, delivers when Manchester City needs him most.
Thursday was no different.
The sturdy striker put City on the path to victory when he unleashed a left-footed rocket in the 40th minute, darting in front of Dejan Lovren with a clever run to the front post, then swiveling his hips and smashing the ball beyond a helpless Alisson into the roof of the net.
It was everything any manager could ever want from their frontman: anticipation – Aguero caught Lovren slightly on his heels – composure, and a killer instinct that has made the 30-year-old one of the most prolific scorers in Premier League history.
The tally was Aguero’s 10th on the campaign, meaning he has now hit double figures in every domestic league season since 2006-07 – he was still a teenager. If City are to overtake Liverpool and defend their crown, Aguero will need to continue being the talisman up front.
A stroke of luck for the reigning champions
Sometimes, it’s as simple as getting the bounces to go your way.
Just ask Leicester City, whose improbable 2015-16 title win was aided in no small part by some favorable episodes. Liverpool, seeking their first domestic title in 29 years, have been the beneficiaries of their own slices of luck this season – Jordan Pickford’s incomprehensible error in the Merseyside derby, which gifted the Reds a last-minute win, is the foremost example.
Jurgen Klopp’s men weren’t so lucky on Thursday.
Manchester City were fortunate on multiple occasions throughout the fervent encounter, most notably when a comical first-half sequence ended with the hosts escaping an own goal by 1.12 centimeters. After a Sadio Mane effort careened back off the post, John Stones’ frantic clearance smacked the gloves of a diving Ederson, and the English defender was barely able to get a toe onto the ball before the last sinew of it crossed the line.
Quite literally a game of inches.
Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany then escaped what, on another day, could’ve easily been a red card for a wild, flying tackle on Mohamed Salah that left Klopp incensed after the contest.
“I really like Vincent Kompany but how on earth is that not a red card? He is last man and he goes in,” the German bench boss fumed. “If he hits Mo [Salah] more he is out for the season. It is not easy for the ref and he may not see it how I see it.”
Another referee may not have been so lenient with the Belgian.
“Luck” is often seen as a dirty word, as though suggesting a team benefitted from having it lessens their accomplishments. In reality, every successful team needs it at some point.
Thin margins often decide matches, and, indeed, title races. On Thursday, Manchester City got the rub of the green.
Fernandinho, Bernardo Silva do all the dirty work
It’s no coincidence that Manchester City’s worst run of the season coincided with Fernandinho’s absence.
The Brazilian midfielder missed the surprising losses to both Crystal Palace and Leicester City with a thigh problem, and while Guardiola’s side was fine in those games – on another day, given the chances created, they could easily have come away with a pair of victories – his absence still loomed large.
Shorn of their tactically astute midfield disruptor – Fernandinho always seems to be in the right place to quash an opposition attack before it can really get going – City were left exposed at the back.
There were no such issues on Thursday.
There are legitimate questions to be raised about the sustainability of a system that relies so heavily on a 33-year-old to function, but City’s deep pockets will likely see that issue sorted in the near future. On this day, in a match they absolutely needed to win, Fernandinho proved once again why he is the most important player in City’s extravagant squad.
The indefatigable veteran was a monster – and he wasn’t the only one.
Bernardo Silva, the diminutive Portuguese playmaker who has grown in stature as a creative force for City this season, put in a shift that would make a marathon runner blush.
The two combined to make seven tackles and five interceptions – they racked up 19 ball recoveries between them – while Silva covered more ground in a single match than any player in the Premier League this season, running a superhuman 8.5 miles.
It was fitting that his full-bodied challenge along the touchline in the 95th minute was the final tackle of the match.