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31st Dec 2016

Liverpool’s gritty win over impotent Man City leaves Pep Guardiola in the firing line again

City have now lost three league games in a month for the first time in eight years

Tony Barrett

Another Manchester City defeat, another opportunity for his increasingly vocal detractors to depict Pep Guardiola as a balding emperor whose lack of clothing is being exposed by English football and all that it entails.

This was exactly what Jurgen Klopp had in mind almost a year ago when he warned the outgoing Bayern Munich manager that conquering the Premier League with City would be a much taller order than winning La Liga with Barcelona or the Bundesliga with Germany’s most powerful club. It was also what Klopp had in mind when he claimed a comparative lack of resources would not prevent Liverpool from being competitive.

City’s defeat to Liverpool means they have lost three league games in a month for the first time in eight years, a statistic which Guardiola’s critics will seize upon.

That the loss leaves them ten points behind league leaders Chelsea also reduces his scope for mitigation given Antonio Conte has had similarly limited time to impose his methods on the London club. None of the performance indicators that matter currently reflect well on Guardiola and his status as a serial winner dictates that setbacks like this one will be highlighted. That goes with the territory.

Few will excuse him while he struggles to find a winning blend and plenty, as Liverpool did tonight, will look to take advantage for as long as that objective proves elusive. For as long as this process continues, Guardiola and City will be there to be shot at.

(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

For once it was sufficient for Liverpool to be competent and workmanlike, there was no need for them to end the year in the style in which they have illuminated much of it. This was exactly the kind of victory, gritty, resolute and determined, which Klopp’s own detractors had claimed was beyond his team.

Most tellingly of all, it meant Liverpool have won all three of their games against Chelsea, Arsenal and City so far this season, an indication of how seriously their title challenge should be taken.

City’s failure to do the basics, to do the kind of things that top footballers should do regardless of the identity of their manager, undermined them throughout the first half and it was that, more than anything else, that cost them the game.

The rot set in early, Claudio Bravo passing out to Fernandinho who had no options and duly lost the ball to Jordan Henderson. Later in the half, Raheem Sterling crossed into the Kop, Nicolas Otamendi passed out of play, Yaya Toure allowed himself to be robbed on the halfway line and Bravo was guilty of various crimes against goalkeeping.

Against lesser opposition, Hull City for example, City might have gotten away with it. But this was a Klopp side and Guardiola has long since recognised how the German’s teams thrive on such shortcomings.

“They are completely focussed for 90 minutes, waiting for you to mess up a pass so they can set their sprinters on you.” Guardiola was talking about Borussia Dortmund but the same sentiments apply to Liverpool. Make a mistake and they can – and often will – punish you.

All of which made the nature of Liverpool’s opening goal entirely predictable. The theme of City having the ball but losing it unnecessarily featured once more as a routine free kick for the visitors culminated in Liverpool taking the lead. This time it was Aleksander Kolarov who lost possession to Georginio Wijnaldum and the ball was transferred with care to Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana who crossed for Wijnaldum to beat Bravo with a header of stunning power and unerring accuracy.

(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

In a single devastating counter attack, Liverpool had demonstrated why they are the Premier League’s most potent force when it comes to inflicting further hurt on teams who have hurt themselves. They were only a goal down but already it was clear that if City were going to get back into the game, the self-harm was going to have to stop. They were also going to have to win more individual battles, a prospect that didn’t seem particularly realistic while John Stones was allowing himself to be beaten to header after header by Firmino.

As it was, Liverpool’s superior work rate and their uncharacteristic pragmatism – the latter was signalled by Klopp’s decision to start Emre Can ahead of Divock Origi – allowed them to keep their opponents at arms length for the rest of the opening period. Aguero, isolated and searching for his rhythm following a four match ban, was not in the game. City’s failings were rendering him impotent.

City improved in the second half and it should be noted that Liverpool were never able to impose their own style on them anywhere near as much as they have on others, but there was never a stage when an equaliser seemed likely, never mind a comeback.

(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“Liverpool is one of the best teams, we knew that,” Guardiola said afterwards but the City manager neglected to point out that Liverpool had not needed to be anywhere near their best to beat his own team. In the midst of a hectic fixture schedule, Liverpool had ground their way to victory simply by doing the basics better.

By doing so, they go into the second half of season having accumulated more points at this stage of a Premier League campaign than in any other. They have also gone unbeaten at home.

These were the kind of performance indicators that were expected of City under Guardiola but it is Klopp’s Liverpool who are best placed to challenge Chelsea. City have fallen behind and as long as that remains the case their manager will stay in the firing line.