Jump start

Wi­j­nal­dum strikes early as Klopp dents Guardi­ola’s ti­tle hopes

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - Chris Bas­combe at An­field

We will only know in May how this fix­ture im­pacted on the ti­tle swing-ome­ter, but this felt like the even­ing Liver­pool’s be­lief soared.

Ge­orginio Wi­j­nal­dum’s win­ning goal means they, not Manch­ester City, head into the New Year as Chelsea’s clos­est ri­vals. Pep Guardi­ola’s first sea­son in English foot­ball may now be filed un­der the head­ing ‘tran­si­tional’, a 10-point gap to the lead­ers en­sur­ing he must be look­ing over his shoul­der be­fore he can af­ford the lux­ury of think­ing too far ahead.

For the vic­tors, 2017 will be­gin with the re­solve to end a 27-year ti­tle drought. Liver­pool do not of­ten win games in this way – their de­fen­sive ex­cel­lence came to the fore af­ter they had se­cured a de­ci­sive early lead – but they are mak­ing a habit of win­ning these types of games.

Against their top six ri­vals, they have now taken 11 from 15 points avail­able and should have won the two they drew against Tot­ten­ham and Manch­ester United. Three of those teams around them are still come to An­field this sea­son. But for stupid mis­takes against Burn­ley and Bournemouth, the sit­u­a­tion would be even health­ier.

Liver­pool’s 43 points is their most at the half­way stage of any sea­son in the Pre­mier League era, as is their goal tally of 46. They are in the top two on New Year’s Day for only the third time since 1992. Lit­tle won­der Jür­gen Klopp said he ‘could not imag­ine be­ing more happy’ hav­ing seen his side pro­duce a per­for­mance that re­quired a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tic to so many oth­ers. If early-sea­son vic­to­ries evoked me­mories of the at­tack­ing ex­cel­lence when Bren­dan Rodgers’ side went so close in 2014, this was more like the vin­tage of Rafa Benítez’s near miss in 2009.

Wi­j­nal­dum shone in mid­field, but Klopp will be giv­ing the ex­tra bear hugs to cen­tre-backs De­jan Lovren and Rag­nar Kla­van, who en­sured City barely reg­is­tered a shot.

This thrilling, slugfest of game lived up to its billing, even if the tech­ni­cal ex­cel­lence broadly sur­ren­dered to sheer panic in the most vi­brant of at­mos­pheres.

Once Liver­pool led, it be­came an ex­hi­bi­tion of at­tack ver­sus counter-at­tack. The mag­ni­tude of the oc­ca­sion em­braced ev­ery­thing in the most anx­ious fix­ture of the cam­paign. It is doubt­ful even the Bun­desliga en­coun­ters be­tween these A-list man­agers were so in­fected by ten­sion.

The home cel­e­bra­tions and City’s de­jec­tion un­der­lined how high were the stakes, even if it is pre­ma­ture to sug­the gest where these clubs will fin­ish. What was ev­i­dent is that, while Liver­pool were able to pen­e­trate, City were pow­der-puff light, all prom­ise with no sub­stance.

Liver­pool were mul­ti­fac­eted, a side made of sev­eral com­ple­men­tary el­e­ments. City looked one-paced and oned­i­men­sional, their pass­ing plod­ding and lack­ing in both imag­i­na­tion and pen­e­tra­tion. Ser­gio Agüero was of­ten iso­lated.

Guardi­ola’s men en­joyed plenty of en­cour­ag­ing spells mo­nop­o­lis­ing the ball, but too of­ten it felt like they were play­ing keepy-up against a brick wall.

With Guardi­ola try­ing to mould a side be­fit­ting his rep­u­ta­tion, the first eight min­utes por­trayed his prob­lems in mi­cro­cosm, as Liver­pool barely ex­changed a pass but went a goal up.

Adam Lal­lana found space on the left ring and de­liv­ered the per­fect cross for ad­vanc­ing Wi­j­nal­dum. His aerial con­test with Alek­sander Ko­larov was a mis­match.

So the theme was es­tab­lished, City prob­ing and toil­ing to make their pos­ses­sion mean­ing­ful while Liver­pool coun­tered with pur­pose, even if poise de­serted them the longer the game went on.

That this would be the only goal seemed in­con­ceiv­able. Agüero re­turned from sus­pen­sion as the fig­ure­head of a po­ten­tially de­struc­tive at­tack, but the vis­i­tors’ de­fence of­ten looked vul­ner­a­ble.

Vin­cent Kom­pany watched with the City fans in the An­field Road End. That City needed their cap­tain on the pitch was all too ev­i­dent when Wi­j­nal­dum scored with his head.

Emre Can’s in­clu­sion at the ex­pense of Divock Origi was a sur­prise, but there we saw its merit. It en­abled Wi­j­nal­dum to push fur­ther for­ward, the hosts more will­ing to play to the cir­cum­stances rather than a phi­los­o­phy.

When Guardi­ola first took on Klopp in Ger­many, the Span­ish coach com­pro­mised, aban­don­ing the short game for the di­rect ap­proach. Here, Klopp suc­cess­fully tin­kered with a win­ning for­mula. It was as much a sign of re­spect as Klopp seek­ing out his coun­ter­part for a pre-match em­brace yes­ter­day

Liver­pool must have played more long balls in the first half than the en­tire sea­son, be­ing ready to ex­ploit City’s dis­com­fort when the ball bob­bled near their cen­tre-backs. There was a method to this ap­proach, with Liver­pool’s foot­ball still eye-catch­ing in ar­eas that could in­flict dam­age.

Only care­less­ness pre­vented them carv­ing out fur­ther clear-cut chances.

Roberto Firmino failed to con­trol a su­perb James Mil­ner pass when he would have had an easy chip over Clau­dio Bravo, the ad­vanc­ing goal­keeper. Then Firmino hes­i­tated be­fore send­ing Lal­lana through for an­other one-onone just be­fore half-time, the lines­man’s flag in­ter­ven­ing to Klopp’s con­ster­na­tion.

City needed 53 min­utes to reg­is­ter their first shot on tar­get, with Aguero fir­ing straight at Mig­no­let from 25 yards more in hope than ex­pec­ta­tion.

Silva was closer from the edge of the penalty area but the most en­cour­ag­ing mo­ment for the vis­i­tors was Jor­dan Hen­der­son’s early de­par­ture with a heel com­plaint. Klopp re­as­sured fans af­ter­wards that it was not a re­cur­rence of the in­jury that kept Hen­der­son out of much of last sea­son.

It would be fool­ish to write off City’s chances on the ba­sis of this re­sult, but they look a work in progress. Both man­agers sounded like they knew the con­se­quences of this re­sult.

For Guardi­ola, the hunt con­tin­ues for an end prod­uct. Klopp was think­ing about the gap to the top. “Can you imag­ine how an­noy­ing it is when you win 13 games in a row and there is one team only six points be­hind?” he said.

Fly­ing start: Ge­orginio Wi­j­nal­dum scores the win­ner for Liver­pool yes­ter­day

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