Johnson OG 62'
Football. Sometimes it's impossible to describe.
Today saw every possible emotion. Anxiety to hopefulness to ecstasy to fear to resignation to utter jubilation to relief. There was not a single lull through 90 minutes, not one chance for anyone to catch their breath. At full time, it felt like we'd all run a marathon.
As in the home matches against Arsenal, Everton, and Tottenham, Liverpool began in the best possible manner, attacking towards the Kop, backed by four walls of ground-shaking noise.
The starting lineup was a bit of a surprise. Both Sterling and Coutinho were in the XI, but Liverpool persisted with the diamond, with Sterling at the apex and Coutinho deeper than usual. Two months ago, I never thought that possible, none of us thought that possible. And Sterling – still, I remind, just 19 years old – opened the scoring in the 6th minute.
Liverpool were all over City, and it seemed a matter of time before the second. That Yaya Toure had to go off through injury in the 19th minute – the player they'd least like to lose – made it seem even more imminent. Sterling's early cross found Sturridge in a perfect position, but the striker flicked his shot narrowly wide. Gerrard, letting Coutinho take a corner, bashed his free header too close to a quick-to-react Hart. But the reward finally came on the subsequent corner. This time, Gerrard took. This time, Skrtel ghosted in front of three players (zonal marking!) for a near post flick-on, giving Hart no chance. That's seven for him this season. I checked the records a few weeks back. I may be wrong, but I couldn't find a Liverpool center-back who has scored more in a single season.
But Manchester City aren't Swansea or Fulham. They aren't Arsenal or Everton. They were bound to regroup. It began in the final 10-15 minutes of the first half – Gerrard made a crucial block on Dzeko; Sakho,could have been called for a penalty on Dzeko; Sterling and Johnson both cleared a corner off the line; Mignolet had to make a marvelous save on Fernandinho; Liverpool got away with three frightening, casual passes in their own half – but in the second half, Manchester City made a comeback that looked worthy of champions.
You knew there'd be a response, and you had to be prepared for it. Liverpool seemingly weren't. To be fair, it helps when you can sub on £55m or so worth of players in Milner and Agüero. Milner made the bigger impact, by far, with Agüero clearly not fully fit, coming on after City got their two goals. The England midfielder – on in place of Navas, who'd been utterly smothered by Flanagan – was involved in both of City's goals, and it's not as if Liverpool weren't warned. Neat one-twos around Liverpool's defenders, wide players getting to the byline, cutting back for well-placed attackers.
Liverpool got that warning a minute before City's first when Silva had the ball in the net, called back because Milner couldn't keep it in before playing the pass, and City's opener came from the exact same situation – this time, Silva slamming in Milner's cutback. And five minutes later, they were level; City given too much space down Liverpool's right, one touch from Milner to Nasri to Silva, Silva's ball at the byline deflecting off both Johnson and Mignolet, the own goal given to the right back. As in the first half, fortune favors the bold.
"You didn't think it'd be that easy, did you?"
Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.
Just as important was how Liverpool's diamond midfield had tired after the frenetic first hour, with the game crying out for Allen or Lucas in place of Coutinho or Sterling, no matter how well those two had played in the first half. But rather than replacing one of the midfielders, an injury to Sturridge required his exit, with Allen coming on and Liverpool switching to 4-1-4-1/4-3-3.
It was a good thing that Coutinho didn't come off. Liverpool still had to weather a bit of an onslaught: Mignolet saving Dzeko's effort, Nasri blasting wide from distance, and the closest they came, Silva toe-poking Agüero's centered pass wide after Skrtel's mistake in defense left Sakho up against both Agüero and Silva. But Liverpool began to find its bearings. The old Liverpool would have lost faith, at best drawing 2-2 but more likely losing 2-3. Not this Liverpool. Not the Liverpool unbeaten since the new year, not the Liverpool that'd won nine straight. Not the Liverpool that believes.
But it's still better to be lucky and good rather than lucky or good. Liverpool, achieving its toe-hold, keeping possession in City's half, won a throw-in near the corner flag. Clichy could only head skyward, Kompany completely fouled up his attempted clearance, and Coutinho was onto the loose ball as if he were shot from a cannon, barely looking up before rifling past Joe Hart.
From there, you expected a City onslaught. And City dominated possession, but despite 15 minutes to play, despite five minutes of added time, the closest they came was a downward header from Demichelis from a corner, easily claimed by Mignolet. Flanagan's brutal tackle not long after Coutinho's strike, cleanly clearing out both ball and man before roaring in the direction of his teammates then the crowd, set the tone. "We will not be moved."
That Henderson picked up a deserved straight red in the dying minutes ended the day on a downer, or as much of a downer as possible after that result. He'll miss the next three matches, the only time he's missed this season, but at least Liverpool have replacements in both Lucas and Allen.
Today was the second-straight match where Liverpool have won without either Suarez or Sturridge scoring. Those are the only two matches where that's happened this season.
Over the last four months, Liverpool have become an amazing team. Emphasis on the final word. From reliance on Suarez and Sturridge, to beating the presumptive league favorites led by the performances of Gerrard, Sterling, Coutinho, and Flanagan. Neither of Liverpool's talismanic strikers were anywhere near their best. Suarez was the epicenter of Liverpool's first, bullying two defenders before an nanometer-perfect throughball for Sterling, but was too often petulant and frustrated after picking up an early yellow. Sturridge was a shadow of his usual self, made worse by picking up an injury in the build-up to City's second goal.
But Liverpool coped, and Liverpool responded. You can't look past the aforementioned efforts of Sterling, Coutinho, and Flanagan, but Gerrard was the man of the match. Liverpool has become Gerrard, the destroyer of worlds. To crib a terrible Chelsea banner, one that Gerrard's far more deserving of, he's Captain, Leader, Legend. And it means the world to him.
Nothing is settled, nothing is finalized. But it's another step on the road, this road we never thought Liverpool could travel this season. There are four games left for greatness, and I've no doubt Liverpool will treat each as importantly as they did today.