Forget the 18-point chasm which opened up between Liverpool and Manchester City last season. Very little will separate the two finest teams in the country on this evidence. The reigning Premier League champions will be the happier of the two having taken a point away from their annual trip to the Etihad, but their deposed rivals will be encouraged by how they could – perhaps should – have won this encounter between the two title favourites.
If only Kevin De Bruyne had capitalised on a Joe Gomez handball at the end of the first half and converted from the penalty spot, thereby adding to Gabriel Jesus’ equaliser and completing the turnaround from Mohamed Salah’s spot-kick. Incredibly, he fired wide of the left-hand post.
That all happened within the first 42 minutes. The remainder was less eventful, as two tiring sides struggled to break each other down.
That made De Bruyne’s failure from the spot all the more decisive and there is an eerie comparison to be made with Riyad Mahrez’s at Anfield two years ago which, incidentally, was the last Premier League penalty to entirely miss the target.
Perhaps that is not such a bad omen for City. They were ultimately crowned champions that year, after all. Yet that moment went on to produce a title race that was far too close for comfort for either Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp.
The standard may have dropped somewhat since then. Nobody expects a 99-point winner and 98-point runner-up, given that this is the most peculiar of seasons. Indeed, City and Liverpool now enter the November international break in eleventh and third respectively and a challenge from elsewhere cannot be ruled out. Nevertheless, they are still expected to emerge from the pack and judging by this, who finishes above the other from there is anyone’s guess.
Whatever the result, it would not have a substantial bearing on the title race of a season that is just eight games old and yet, you would not have known that from the blistering start. Fielding a bold four-man attack, Liverpool began particularly well. The champions found routes in behind City time and again throughout the first half, yet only made one count. A lapse of concentration by Kyle Walker gave Sadio Mané a split second to break into the penalty area. Mané took it and Walker’s careless attempt to recover possession conceded a penalty.
City were furious. During the very same passage of play, Sterling had attempted to stay on his feet after being barged by Diogo Jota on the edge of the Liverpool penalty area, then eventually fell to the ground. Play on, said referee Craig Pawson. Ederson and Ruben Dias argued their case but without success, leaving Salah to step up and convert from the spot as he invariably does.
City had a point. Jota’s challenge was just as severe as Walker’s but that did not excuse their right-back’s clumsiness and in any case, he was not the only one struggling with the speed and movement of Liverpool’s attack. Guardiola’s side had to get a handle on their guests and quickly. To their credit, they did, edging the final 20 minutes of the first half and finding an equaliser through Jesus.
It was an example of why City have persisted with the Brazilian, despite an erratic spell in Manchester to date. This feels like it has the potential to be a breakout season for Jesus. If it is, it will be because of the control and composure he showed to collect a pass from De Bruyne on the edge of the penalty area, turn Trent Alexander-Arnold with his first touch and squeeze a finish past Alisson with his second.
Back in the contest, City should have been leading at the break but De Bruyne was wayward from the spot. Pawson had initially decided against penalising Joe Gomez after a De Bruyne cross hit his arm. Guardiola was furious again and enjoyed a few choice words with members of Liverpool’s backroom staff, but Pawson took another look at the incident using the pitchside monitor and a spot-kick was correctly awarded.
De Bruyne did the hard part, sending Alisson the wrong way, which made it all the more astonishing when his strike flew wide of the left-hand post. The Belgian had seemed to solve the penalty-taking problems which dogged City last season. This miss was poor enough that Guardiola, who even touted Ederson as a spot-kick candidate at one point, may now have to go back to the drawing board.
The second half did not have the same speed or fury as the first. Both teams tired and struggled to maintain the same pace. Jesus might have done better after meeting Joao Cancelo’s beautifully clipped cross with a free header that went wide of goal. Cancelo impressed at the other end too, brilliantly recovering to steal the ball from Salah after an audacious Mané backheel had played him into the penalty area.
Otherwise, this was a war of attrition, a long and laboured search for the yard of space that two teams of this calibre rarely concede. Neither found it. The latter stages swung City’s way, with Alexander-Arnold departing injured and a sluggish Liverpool perhaps suffering from starting with such intensity, but there were no further chances as good as De Bruyne’s penalty. A point apiece was a fair result, in all, and may just have set us up for a close-run title race.
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