The only result between Manchester City and Liverpool this morning that would have made it a “title decider” (which is how it was built by every outlet broadcasting it) was a City win. A four-point gap at this point in the season, requiring City to fuck up two games in the run-in while Liverpool to run the table, was always going to be unlikely. Today’s 2-2 draw doesn’t quite bring us there, but it’s close.
What we can say is that this is clearly the definitive rivalry in all of world soccer right now. Not so long ago it was Real Madrid and Barcelona. Some time ago it was Juventus and Inter. Man United and Arsenal held the spot for a minute there as well. Clearly the two best teams in the world, the most anticipated and watched match. The difference is that these games between these two soccer kaijus is that it always lives up to the hype.
Much like their match at the Etihad in 2019, or earlier this season at Anfield, the level of quality is simply unmatched. Every attack is so intricate and concocted in a boiler room, given the pressure that each team exert while defending and pressing, and yet it always looks like each team is about 10 seconds from scoring with just the slightest of an opening. At the same time, somehow, each defense can look impenetrable for long stretches even with the most designer weapons being hurled at them consistently. No other game on the calendar requires such concentration and nous on both sides of the ball as this, while played at a “we’ve gone plaid” pace and inside a witch’s cauldron of an atmosphere.
City have been the better team overall in both games against Liverpool this season, and will feel unlucky to not have won either. Their one point lead at the top of the Premier League will be a decent salve for that disappointment though. Liverpool are just about the only side in the world that can push City to a level that only they can achieve. While there was a bit of fortune to City’s opener, Kevin De Bruyne’s shot deflecting off Joël Matip to give it spin and an angle that Alisson couldn’t get to, the build-up and quick free kick was the latest display of de Bruyne’s genius.
De Bruyne was a menace all match long, taking up a position that kept Fabinho pinned back when City had the ball, but ready to press Fabinho or the Liverpool defense when they lost it to keep Liverpool from getting out on a counterattack that is usually venomous.
But the thing about the level Liverpool push City to is that even City can’t maintain it for 90 minutes. Even if City can rightly claim they only dropped off for a brief section of the match here or there, that’s more than enough for the individual quality Liverpool have to break through. Like say the pass Thiago plays in the leadup to Diogo Jota’s equalizer:
The rest of the first half was City imposing themselves, instigating the only press that can turn Liverpool’s back four into jittery middle schoolers at their first dance when they normally are most comfortable playing their way out. City is also capable of their own individual brilliance, and it usually comes from João Cancelo, doing things like this guided missile of a cross-field ball for Gabriel Jesus to put them ahead 2-1:
Such are the margins for these two teams that Trent Alexander-Arnold is only fractionally behind the rest of his defensive line to keep Jesus onside, but that’s all it takes. City spent most of the first half weaving their way through what is a pretty slow Liverpool midfield, with De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling consistently popping up between the lines that Liverpool couldn’t track. When LIverpool did get their press going, City stole a page from their book and pinged field switching passes out to their fullbacks to bypass it.
But again, the level City get pushed to, that is only reachable by them, can only last so long. There was clearly a bit of a drop to start the second half, which only took Liverpool 48 seconds to exploit:
City’s press, which had driven the Reds mad in the first half, dropped before and after Mane’s goal, which saw Liverpool with just about their only period of dominance in the match. After that, as physical and mental fatigue set in, both teams were vulnerable but neither could get through the other’s last line of defense. Not surprising, considering these are the two best defenses in the game.
The last time these two went eyeball-to-eyeball, the aforementioned January 2019, the match and title were decided on 11.7 millimeters. There are certainly margins of that minuscule size that appeared in this match, whether it was Raheem Sterling’s winner chalked off for being a pubic hair’s length offside, or Riyad Mahrez’s freekick that shaved the outside of the post, or his failed chip in second half injury time that would have won it. Should City slip, they’ll be cursing the finest of margins in this match this time.
But right now, much like it was then, it is City’s advantage. Liverpool have the tougher run-in, and they’ll probably have to sweep it all. And even that might not be enough. City might not face a team in the league who have much to play for the rest of the way. Wolves’s European hopes are hanging by a thread. Watford might well be relegated all but in name by then. Leeds might be safe. West Ham’s Champions League chase could be toast by the time they host City on the penultimate weekend of the season. Or they might be focused on the Europa League.
Meanwhile, Liverpool still have to negotiate the hottest team besides them or City in Spurs, and Spurs probably should have beaten them once already this season. Everton will be desperately clawing to avoid relegation. A suddenly much spikier Newcastle away is hardly a day out in the sun.
The draw makes the margin of error for each essentially nil. Which is probably how it should be, given that the games between these two don’t have a margin for error either. They’re destined to do this forever.
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